I Hate Latin: Res Ipsa Loquitur

by Jamison Koehler on December 4, 2011


I only took two years of Latin in High School.

It was years before I actually admitted this to my children.  Because I often cited the Latin origins of a word, they assumed I was this great Latin scholar.  It was not until their education in the language began to overtake mine that I had to admit to them that, actually, my entire education in Latin consisted of four semesters in high school.

And I never told them that I was at best a mediocre student.   My father helped me with my homework every night – that was part of the bargain we struck when he forced me to take Latin – and our sessions consisted of a nightly struggle at the kitchen table, with him trying to coax the answers out of me and me trying to get them from him. It never occurred to me to just learn the declensions for myself. And he wasn’t there to feed me answers during the exams.

All four of my siblings went on to win the school’s Latin Prize their senior year in high school.  Years after all five of us had graduated, my father would occasionally run into the high school’s Latin teacher, Miss Donley, downtown, and Miss Donley would dutifully ask my father about all four of my siblings, going through each one of them in order of age.  But my father noticed that Miss Donley never asked about me.  After getting an update on my middle sister, she would leapfrog over my place in the birth order to ask about my younger sister.  I can imagine her pausing slightly as her mind elided over a mental picture of my charming and youthful face.

There are many possible explanations for this omission.  My father suggested she might not connect me with the other Latin scholars in our family.  But he was clearly being charitable; he knew very well that there are only so many Koehlers in Amherst, Massachusetts, and nothing ever got by Miss Donley.  No, the only possible conclusion was that she simply chose not to inquire about my well-being, her pleasant memories of my charming, youthful face notwithstanding.

Dismal performance aside, I have always thought that those two years of Latin with Miss Donley did more for my formal education than any other class I ever took – in high school, college, graduate school or law school.  Not only did it (briefly) impress my kids.  It helped with grammar and syntax and vocabulary.  It helped with foreign languages.  It introduced me to Julius Caesar, Psyche, and Roman civilization.  A passing knowledge still comes in helpful in learning many legal concepts.  And you have to love a language with the logical structure of German and the simplicity in word choice of a Raymond Carver short story or poem.

That said, my favorite Latin expression has to be Res Ipsa Loquitur.  “The thing speaks for itself.”  What could possibly be more eloquent? Michael Rahdert, our torts professor in law school, suggested we could impress our families with how much we had learned during our first semester by casually dropping this newly-learned phrase over Thanksgiving dinner.  I would have used the term as the title for this blog had it not already been taken by Jonathan Turley.

One of the major challenges to learning the law – a skill also tested by the LSAT – is the ability to think in the negative, to arrive at conclusions based not on what is there, as we are accustomed to doing, but on what is missing.  The defendant in a DUI case may have failed to signal upon turning right.  His eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and he may have slurred his words.  But for everything he did wrong, there are many more things he did right:  He was not speeding, swerving or crossing the double yellow line.  He posed no threats to other cars or pedestrians.  He pulled over immediately after the police officer activated his lights into the first available safe space off the road.  He was polite and cooperative and had no difficulty producing license, registration, and insurance.  And so on.  It is often what the officer did not write down in his report that is more important than what he did.

A similar concept lies behind the Res Ipsa Loquitur doctrine.  It is not what information is available to the parties litigating a matter or to the court; it is what is missing.  The court does not know — and cannot find out –what actually happened that caused the harm in a tort case.  But the doctrine allows the court to infer negligence or raise a presumption of negligence based on the circumstances or the nature of the harm.

A couple of months ago, I contacted Professor James Strazzella from Temple Law School to consult him on a case.  It was not Res Ipsa Loquitur I learned from him but criminal law.  In fact, whenever I have occasion to think of criminal intent, it is the image of the mens rea hierarchy in his chicken-scratch handwriting that comes to mind.

Professor Strazzella assured me he remembered me, though I am convinced he was only being polite.  But it doesn’t matter:  For every teacher who has forgotten me, or who never knew my name to begin with, there will always be Miss Donley.  Although she has long since passed away, I think of her with her horned-rimmed glasses standing in front of our classroom, Tempus Fugit scrawled out on the chalkboard behind her.  No matter what she may have suggested to my father upon running into him in the grocery store in Amherst, I am in fact convinced she remembered me very well.

6 Comments on “I Hate Latin: Res Ipsa Loquitur

  1. Dearest Brother,
    I understand about poetic license, but I feel I must correct you on one small detail. I, your middle sister, never took Latin. Somehow our father, who now art in heaven, totally overlooked me when overseeing his children’s education. Today, as a teacher of French, I sorely wish I had taken it upon myself to study Latin, despite the oft chanted rhyme, “Latin is a dead language. As dead as it can be. First it killed the Romans. Now it is killing me!”

  2. Way to go, Jenny, ruining my story and all. I’m working now on my next post about how Dad never really liked you very much.

  3. I DID take Latin, Jamie, and now that I teach it at the high school level often find myself citing YOU as a POSITIVE example of its value when confronted by unhappy students. Too bad Miss Betty Jane Donley isn’t around to hear THAT (R.I.P). Although it would not interest my students, even those earning Latin prizes, it may interest you and your readers that it was Marcus Tullius Cicero who first used ‘res ipsa loquitur’ some 2064 years ago in his defense of his friend Titus Annius Milo (Pro Milone). This was during a time of political upheaval when Caesar was away from Rome campaigning in Gaul. I think you should tell that whole story some day because Rome, then, was where our country seems to be heading now. But whether that story is ever told or not, for my purposes here let me just point out a major difference in how Cicero, who coined the phrase, used the concept and how, if I understood your blog entry correctly, it is used today. It seems that today the concept is used to get a conviction for a crime. The great Roman defender Cicero used it in an effort to establish his client’s innocence. I also wish to point out one more fact that you, as a fellow Latin scholar, may find noteworthy. The original Latin was not ‘res ipsa loquitur,’ (so easily anglicized by your colleagues who did not take four semesters of high school Latin to ‘res ipsy’), but ‘res loquitur ipsa.’ The significance? Well, when you write that blog entry giving the full details of the crime that took place on the 18th of January in 52 B.C., you can use your beloved title, Jonathan Turley notwithstanding. Just use the original Latin, not the borrowed. And in case this is not enough, my most impressive brother whom I quote so often to my Latin students in defense of my job, after Cicero lost his case he went home and re-wrote his defense for publication. So if you revised the high school deeds of your siblings a little to write your article, you are only following in the footsteps of the greatest Roman LATIN orator of all time. If our esteemed Latin teacher of some forty years ago (less for you, of course) failed to acknowledge your contributions to Latin, it was HER loss – res loquitur ipsa.

  4. My long-winded and pretentious braggart brother, still showing off — all these years later — how much better he was at Latin than I. It is no wonder that he was Miss Betty Jane Donley’s pet.

  5. Geneva: One of the dangers (according to the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca) of following the sheep is falling prey to (in this case) propaganda. People who hate Latin often never gave it a chance. The bright side of this is that there are ways to overcome: “Latin via Ovid” (Wayne State Press, see Amazon.com) is a self-tutorial, in part at least, that can compensate for a missed opportunity. I’m sure with your French background that you could handle it. I hope you do. It’s a mythology-based approach (as opposed to history/philosophy) that may appeal to you. It has good reviews. I wish you the very best. Give it a try. I just bought the book (and its supplemental English/Latin grammar) to train homeschooling parents in Latin, who will eventually engage their children in Latin. Pass the torch onward and learn it now.

  6. Reading your article & family’s comments is a happy experiemce within an, otherwise, very droll, often dark, www – THANK YOU! I really enjoyed this as I, too, had a mere four semesters of Latin, as instucted by Sr. Felicitas (requiring we memorize twenty new (???) vocabulary words per week with a proper sentence structured for each and to incorporate Latin learned within our other classes’ work) at a Bostin Catholic high school, 1970s. Identifying this unusual and unknown history for such a widely used “locquatur” and “ipsa” has me hooked & I will surely, now, pursue more information on this delectible, little factoid so that I may understand this subject well enough to recycle it within a conversation (which I shall find a way to, thusly, steer) in order to (frequently although only momentarily – so I must always keep trying to keeo up appearances!) fascinate my (20+) child & close, lomg-time best pals with my obvious grasp of immense higher learning -!!!- to trigger in them their honest pursuits. Then, THEY may more enjoy surprising and delighting all their youngsters with their supreme savvy at an exalted age (not accrued by cheating!) when their time comes. I am without guile and without shame, happy to be skilled in the use of these “Mom’s Privileges!” and I thank you very much for equipping me with this unique peculiarity that I do so look forward to studying “on the fly” to implement as pledged. Am about to out-flank them again!! Yes!!

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