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Bill Thayer

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A Famous Phrase from Antiquity:

Origin and Explanation

Illegitimi non carborundum: from a misunderstanding of a passage in the Commentarium in Leviticum of Evagrius Ponticus (ad XIX.29: Migne, Patr. Lat., tom. LXVI col. 89 et seqq.), apparently as corrupted by a scribal error: original text should probably be "Ne illegitimi carbunculi tibi in facie sint", from a gloss on Celsus (de Med. VI.18.5); now proverbial. Traceable in English to a line of John Donne, its first attested use in its modern form, however, (OED Suppl., 1982, s.v. carborundum) was in a sermon delivered at Fort Bragg, N.C. on Apr. 4, 1920. Its almost instant wide dissemination is due to its being reported by H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun, Mon. 5 Apr. 1920, in an article titled "Nursing as a Profession", p4.

For complete discussion with critical apparatus of Evagrius, see G. Schleifschwanz, Op. Polit. Vopisc., in Festschrift für Canon Ritter von Oppolzer, Wien, 1928. For a less scholar­ly treatment, see Why Do We Say It, Castle Publishers, 1985, p287. For a different view, see M. Lefkowitz, Not Out of Dixie, 147‑49 (and bibliog.).

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Page updated: 21 Mar 17