It is a phrase that means rebellion. It is a phrase that means resistance. It means dissidence, and upheaval. It means friendship, and solidarity. It means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” Most of all, it means hope.
It also doesn’t mean what you think it means.
What started off as a schoolroom Latin joke, has now become a rallying cry of feminism and rebellion. People have tattooed the phrase on their bodies. Think about that! People have permanently tattooed a fake Latin phrase onto their body, because it means so much to so many people. It serves as a reminder that someone out there will always be there to be your friend. It means you aren’t alone.
Of course, like many others, the phrase served as an interest for me as I read the book. Waterford tells us that someone was messing with our narrator, and the phrase is nothing more than that. Even if it is fake, it doesn’t take away from the meaning projected onto it by Handmaid’s Tale fans. So I wanted to give this iconic quote a closer look.
According to both Vanity Fair and Refinery29, the phrase is actually a joke from Atwood’s school days. It is grammatically incorrect, and uses two words that are not Latin at all: ‘bastardes’ and ‘carborundorum’. According to both articles, neither of these words exist in true, ancient Latin. The correct translation would read something similar to “Illegitimi non carborundum” or don’t let the illegitimate grind you down. It just doesn’t pack the same punch.
‘Carborundorum’ is actually a word, it is just an English word given a Latin ending. According to the OED it was first used around the 19th or 20th centuries, with some suggestion it could have been used as advertising language made up to mean “to grind” as in like grains into flour.
The correct version of the phrase, Illegitimi non carborundum, is actually recorded in history. It is attributed to American slang in the early 1900s, and was used as a rallying cry in WWII. Oddly enough, the phrase most recently has appeared on a plaque on former Speaker John Boehner’s desk.
Regardless of how bad the Latin is, or how many words are made up, the phrase has meaning to some people. Language changes based on usage, and meanings of words change all the time, i.e. literally. As humans, we have a need to communicate effectively and efficiently, and we tend to make up new words all the time. Imagine asking your great great grandmother to google something for you, or to search the web!
Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum means something to us. It means hope.