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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Journal
Vol. 6, No. 3 (Dec. 1910), pp133‑135.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p133 On "Falces Praeacutae", Caes. B. G. III.14.5

That our standard American lexicon (the Harper's Latin Dictionary, edited by Lewis and Short in 1879) is far from being up to date is well known, and its deficiencies have not been made good by any work in the English language with which I am acquainted. In fact this book, which has not been revised since its publication thirty years ago,a may still be called the standard lexicon of England and America. The reason for this state of affairs is pretty well known, and need not be enlarged upon.

The Germans are much better off than we are, for Georges' Handwörterbuch is frequently issued in a revised edition, and except for the omission in most cases of the exact references for the passages cited for the Latin writers, is remarkably good. This feature, however, while in accordance with the purpose and plan of the book, makes it inadequate for some of the needs of the student, which, it is but fair to say, it was doubtless never intend to serve.

The old Forcellini, therefore, in the revision of De Vit (1860‑75) is still the only Latin lexicon which is reasonably complete and satisfactory, except the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, as far as it goes. Of course the Forcellini-De Vit cannot include the results of the discoveries of the last forty years or so, but it is often superior to the more modern dictionaries, most of which are directly or indirectly based upon its collections of material.

This appears, for example, in the word praeacutus, which it defines as in anteriore parte acutus vel valde acutus. The second part of this definition has been discarded, whether by oversight or by design, in the newer lexicons, but p134it seems called for in some uses of the word. Georges cites only stipites (Caes.), sudes (Sall.), and cuspis (Ovid), and in all these cases the meaning "sharpened at the end" or "pointed" is appropriate enough, although the epithet might seem somewhat otiose in Ovid Met. VII.131. This is not the case however with the falces praeacutae of Caesar, B. G. III.14.5. These instruments were insertae adfixaeque longuriis and were non absimili forma muralium falcium. His (Caesar continues) cum funes, qui antemnas ad malos destinabant comprehensi adductique erant, remigio remis incitato praerumpebantur. It is obvious that the falces were sharpened, not at the point, or not only at the point, but on their edge; and even if they had projecting points as well, like the falces murales which they are said to resemble to some extent, this fact is of no significance compared with the keenness of the blade. I should therefore go back to Forcellini and translate praeacutae by "very sharp," a thing which none of the vocabularies to Caesar do, so far as I am aware.

That prae- in composition has both meanings is well known; see for example Stolz, Hist. lat. Gramm. I.398, where the group to which praeacutus in the sense of "sharpened at the end" belongs does not seem to be represented. Examples of compounds with prae- which have a double meaning are perhaps praecalvus, in anteriore parte calvus vel valde calvus, and praecanus, valde vel ante tempus canus; at least the scholiasts seem to have been able to understand these words either way.

The intensive force of praeacutus seems the better one in Plin. N. H. VIII.26, ita pendens alterum poplitem dextra caedit ac praeacuta bipenni hoc crure tardato profugiens alterius poplitis nervos ferit, for an axe is sharpened, not on its end, but on its edge, and even if praeacutus could mean "sharpened on the edge," why should this very obvious feature of an axe be emphasized? The meaning "very sharp" or "keen" seems invariably the better one when praeacutus is applied to edged tools. With stakes, and the like, "pointed" is usually the natural meaning.

In some cases one might well be in doubt which of the two meanings to choose, for example that of the scopuli praeacuti of Plin. N. H. VIIII.26, where the adjective is variously rendered by the translators. The squamae praeacutae of the strange fishes described by Pliny in N. H. VIIII.69, are likened by him to clavi caligares, or hob-nails. To judge from Pliny's words, and from Cuvier's and Rondelet's description of the fish, which apparently make their appearance in modern times for a brief season, at the same time of year, in the lakes of northern Italy, they had large scales, in the middle of each of which was a sharp point. Pliny's comparison with hob-nails then would seem to refer to the general appearance of a soldier's boot studded with such nails rather than to the points of the nails. Bostock and Riley's translation, "remarkable for the number of their scales and their exceeding sharpness," seems to take prae- in an intensive sense, as I should be inclined to do. It must be admitted, however, that in this case the other meaning is not impossible.

p135 I am disposed to see the same intensive force of prae- in praerumpebantur, in the same sentence as the falces praeacutae; i.e., the ropes which bound the yards to the mast were violently torn apart. That this really means that they were cut, is shown by abscisis at the beginning of the next sentence. This force of prae- is sometimes present in praecido and praefringo, which are like praeacutus in being used in a double sense, while in praefulgeo the intensive force is apparently the only one. In the case of all these words the definitions of the Forcellini-De Vit are better than those of the more modern lexicons and vocabularies, so far as I have examined the latter.

That Caesar unquestionably uses praeacutus in some connections with the meaning "sharpened at the end" is of course no reason for supposing that he always used the word in the same sense.

John C. Rolfe

University of Pennsylvania.

Thayer's Note:

a My own exemplar of the Lewis & Short is an 1989 reprint of the (still unrevised) 1879 edition: the dictionary is one of Oxford University Press's cash cows. The entry praeacutus reads as follows, in its entirety:

prae-ăcŭo, ūtum, 3, v. a., to sharpen before or at one end, to sharpen to a point: surculum praeacuito . . . eum primorem praeacuito, Cato, R. R. 40, 2 and 3. — Hence, praeăcūtus, a, um. I. Part.II. P. a., sharpened before or at the end, sharpened, pointed: surculus aridus praeacutus, Cato, R. R. 40, 3: cacumina, Caes. B. G. 7, 73, 2: sudes, Sall. C. 56, 3: tigna paulum ab imo praeacuta, Caes. B. G. 4, 17: cuspis, Ov. M. 7, 131: bipennis, Plin. 8, 8, 8, § 26: scopuli, id. 9, 10, 12, § 38. — Hence, praeăcūtē, adv., very acutely, App. Mag. p. 296, 26.

Only the faintest inkling that the lexicographers might have agreed with Rolfe: the intensive meaning of the adverb is marked "Hence"; the meaning is rare enough, though, that the online text of Apuleius (Hunink, 1997) emends to peracute.

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