Consider these examples:

Mr. Johnson has been the janitor for God knows how long.

Right behind this park is the new bridge that cost God knows how much.

You can replace "God knows how" with "I don't know how" or "who knows how" without really changing the meaning. (In Finnish I would use "ties vaikka kuinka", but I have no idea how to translate that into any other language, but I remark that it has to do with knowing, too.) You could replace it with "very" or drop it altogether, but that would certainly change the nuance.

Is there a similar intensifier in Latin that I could use to tell (in exaggeration) that no one knows the real extent? The God is irrelevant here; the idiom can refer to some divine entities or not. An attested classical idiom would be great.

For example, I might write something like the following in Latin:

Hora tertia postmeridiana Professor Smith nescio quam vetus acroasim faciet de lingua Latina.

I don't know how idiomatic the bold part is and how to replace it with something more suitable. Of course I could use vetustissimus or valde vetus, but I prefer indicating (jokingly) somehow that no one knows how old he is. Is nescio quam an idiomatic way to put this?

  • On the phone/quick stop on a busy Saturday morning/quis scit seems promising (although no divinity for the hyperbolic effect/not sure if it is just that idiomatic)... and attested. solus Deus scit: first Google results seem like modern philosophy, but can't rule it out just yet
    – Rafael
    Aug 5, 2017 at 14:29
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    Lots of examples in L&S for nescio quis in the similar meaning "I don't know who", so I'd guess nescio quam is right.
    – TKR
    Aug 5, 2017 at 22:21
  • @TKR That looks very promising! It never occurred to me that I could find so good examples there. By analogy, nescio quam is reasonable. That'd make a good answer even if no attestation of nescio quam is found. (I can write it up in the coming days, but I'll be happy if someone beats me to it.)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Aug 5, 2017 at 22:55
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    Turns out there are examples of nescio quam in this sense on PHI: latin.packhum.org/search?q=nescio+quam
    – TKR
    Aug 5, 2017 at 23:23

2 Answers 2


The guess nescio quam is indeed a good one. For example:

  • Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum nescio quam bene

This was the only such use of nescio quam bene/longe/vetus/... I could find that was not an indirect question. Of course there are examples like this, nescio is the predicate, not a side remark:

  • Quintilianus, Declamationes Maiores 4.23.7: nescio quam longe

In most occurrences of nescio quam the quam is in fact a feminine accusative of quis. Examples (there were several):

  • Cicero, Pro Quinctio 37.7: istam nescio quam innumerabilem pecuniam
  • Cicero, Pro Cluentio 74.8: causam nescio quam apud iudicem defendebat

Other cases and genders are of course possible as well; see the corpus search for nescio qu-. Based on these examples and the single attestation from Cicero, the suggested use of nescio quam in the question looks like idiomatic classical Latin. Admittedly, it might mean "I don't know how much" more literally than the question intends, but it is the best hit I could find.

  • 1
    I'm afraid both of these citations are in their literal meaning "I know not how", not in the "some" meaning of nescioquis and certainly not "very": Cicero's is translated in the Loeb as "how well I cannot say", (Pseudo-)Quintilian's one is translated in a paper as "I have no idea how far I can drive my hand because of the pain as my life leaves me". There don't seem to be any other candidates for either of these specialised meanings in the instances of nescio quam that I can see on PHI. Jun 11, 2019 at 18:48
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    @Unbrutal_Russian I added a sentence to the end of the answer. This is indeed not a perfect hit, but it is the best one I found. Frankly, I don't find it too much of a stretch to use it in the sense of the question, although that would not count as an attested idiom. Unless there are other suggestions, I'm tempted to believe that this is the best choice, even if not quite what I originally wanted in nuance.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Jun 11, 2019 at 19:46
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    @JoonasIlmavirta Nescio + adverbial quam won't work, but nescio quis modifying an adjective is definitely sometimes used as an intensifier. The model to be followed is the one provided by istam nescio quam innumerabilem pecuniam = "this ungodly sum." Jun 12, 2019 at 12:38
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    @Kingshorsey You know, I seem to have missed it before, but nescio quam innumerābilem pecūniam is precisely such an example of adverbial quam modified by nescio - nescio quam innūmerābilis pecūnia ("a very large sum") - and not adjectival nescio qua innumerābilis pecūnia ("I don't know which/some large sum of money"). So Joonas' suggestion seems to be spot on. Jun 19, 2019 at 18:16

To find the exact Latin equivalent (deus solus scit) we have to look beyond Classical to Christian Latin, for example this in a Latin translation of John Chrysostom (note also the Greek version in the parallel column).


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