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I found a strange word while I read my Latin–Portuguese dictionary (Dicionário latino-português por F. R. Dos Santos Saraiva). The word is "al". The dictionary says that it's a Celtic word used by Vergilius and its meaning is unknown. I tried to find it in OLD and Gaffiot, and there was nothing. (I never read Vergilius.) Is this word real?

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2 Answers 2

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As Joonas says, this word is a hapax legomenon (word that only appears once). The only attestation listed in the TLL comes from Ausonius, a fourth-century poet; in his Technopaegnion, every line ends with a different monosyllable, which leads to using a lot of obscure words.

The specific quote comes from the section titled Grammaticomastix ("Scourge of Grammarians"), which uses a lot of obscure monosyllables found in poetry:

die, quid significent Catalepta Maronis? in his al
Celtarum posuit; sequitur non lucidius tau
So what do Vergil's "Catalepta" mean? In these, he's placed
Celtic "al"; he follows it up, no more clearly, with "tau".

The problem is, this "Celtic al" doesn't actually appear in the Catalepta. Vergil does mention a tau Gallicum at one point—probably meaning a letter Ꟈ that appears in Gaulish inscriptions—but no al. Which means Ausonius's copy of the Catalepta may be different from the versions that have survived to the present, or there might be an error in transmission from Ausonius.

Either way, it certainly does not seem to have been used as a word in Latin.

P.S. The passage in the Catalepta talks about a rhetorician brewing up a nasty concoction of Gaulish tau and min and sphin; the latter two are archaic Greek pronouns that were mostly of interest to grammarians. Based on this, the Loeb quotes one commentary that thinks these words were chosen as puns: Latin-speakers in Gaul might have shortened taurum to tau, for example, and then al could have been a local abbreviation for allium. As far as I can tell there's no actual evidence for this (it's pure speculation), and the fact that al doesn't appear in surviving versions of the Catalepta is a problem for the theory.

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As cmw points out in a comment, you can access TLL (Thesaurus Linguae Latinae) online, and here's the entry for al:

TLL entry

This seems to be word that occurs only once (a hapax legomenon), and the entry suggests that it may well be a copying error. And even if it was really in the original text, I still wouldn't count it as a Latin word as it is a quote from another language within a Latin text.

Most dictionaries will not include words like this, but TLL is very comprehensive and your best guess with very rare words.

So, simply put, no, this word is not real.

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  • Today I learned hapax legomenon (a word that only appears once). I can't help but ask if there is a elegant way of saying "a word that is not real."
    – Wastrel
    Feb 12, 2023 at 16:45
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    @Wastrel Whether there is a scholarly term for unreal words similar to hapax legomenon would make a nice question for the site. Just bear in mind that there can be many ways to be not real and in many cases there there is no reason to speak of such words. A word worth looking into and comparing to is "unattested", as it gets pretty close.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 12, 2023 at 17:10
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    @Wastrel "Ghost word" is sometimes used for this.
    – TKR
    Feb 13, 2023 at 17:14
  • @TKR Thank you. The wikipedia article for "ghost word" has several amusing examples of words being invented accidentally, by typographical error or a mistaken translation, and then being published in dictionaries.
    – Wastrel
    Feb 13, 2023 at 17:29

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