Following Common Scents in the New Naso

Wolfgang de Melo

In starting to grapple with the “New Naso“, let us look first at that name. In an article [1] that makes the ever-exciting subject of Latin onomastics accessible even to the advanced undergraduate, R. Schmitt argues that Roman cognomina were often derived from physical defects; hence Varro from varus (the littera-rule applies, of course), or names such as Rufus. Personally, I would prefer to consider red hair unusual and noteworthy in ancient Rome, rather than a physical defect, and we should undoubtedly modify Schmitt’s extreme claim along those lines: cognomina were often derived from noteworthy features, whether they were negative or indeed positive. Naso, then, based on the size of one’s nasus, must be the prime example of a positive feature resulting in a cognomen.

Very recently, J. Fisher wrote an interesting piece on Indo-European heritage in Ennius.[2] Although I disagree with many of his notions, the methodology is of interest, and if we adopt it, we may indeed find that the appreciation of a large organ of smell was a common topos in Indo-European poetics. It is remarkable that Fisher overlooked this obvious fact, but this is probably because he has not spent much time on the textual tradition of the Ennian fragments; for what is now often quoted, in inferior editions, as Moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque (156 Sk. = 167 Fl. = 467 W. = 500 V.), should of course be Naribus antiquis etc. This is the reading found in the very best manuscripts, and the corruption to moribus is almost certainly the product of a misreading that arose in Carolingian minuscule, aided, no doubt, by the depressing tendency of scribes to see everything in moralistic terms.

As a philologist, it is my duty to examine Latin texts for textual problems, metrical structure, and problems of grammar. Only deviations from classical norms can excite me. But as Ovid is the greatest master of Latin elegiac couplets, there is little I can comment on here. A lesser writer like Catullus might have ended some pentameters with quadrisyllabic or even trisyllabic words, but thankfully none of these absurdities are present to offend my sensibilities.

However, if I may briefly come back to the Indo-European side of things, there are two phonological problems that have hitherto been brushed aside; but both are of the utmost significance for our text. First, we have to ask ourselves why we have nares, with the expected rhotacism, alongside nasus, which has failed to undergo this sound change that we can roughly date to the mid-fourth century BC (based on the fact that this is when Papisius changed his name to Papirius). And second, why do we have forms like olor and olere next to the older odor? To begin with the intriguing problem of the absent rhotacism, most etymological dictionaries resort to unacceptable special pleading. Thus, we read that nares underwent the normal sound change, but that nasus was borrowed from a variety of Latin that failed to undergo rhotacism. This is not entirely inconceivable, but at the same time we have to wonder why we have a phonological irregularity in the other olfactory word, odor / olor; as a side-note, it is also noticeable that the derived verb, olere, switches from the third conjugation to the second in the course of early Latin. Rather than looking at all these issues in isolation, and thinking up irregular sound changes, we should step outside our philological comfort zone and try to see the bigger picture.

Smell has always been the most important of the senses, and just as Delphi was thought of as the navel and centre of the earth, so the nostrils were considered the twin navels of the face. The Neogrammarians taught us that sound change is overwhelmingly regular; but they also pointed out that words for important concepts may fail to undergo sound changes, or may undergo deviant phonological developments. And what better example could there be of important concepts behaving in special ways, if not the nose and the sense of smell? Some of the most curious things in philology lie hidden in plain view – but if we strain our eyes together we can sometimes just catch the tip of them.

Wolfgang de Melo is a linguist and classicist at Wolfson College, Oxford, who specializes in the intersectionality between philology and critical olfactory theory.


1 R. Schmitt, ‘Das indogermanische und das alte lateinische Personennamensystem,’ in O. Panagl and Th. Krisch, Latein und Indogermanisch: Akten des Kolloquiums der Indogermanischen Gesellschaft, Salzburg, 23.-26. September 1986 (Innsbruck, 1988) 369–93.
2 J. Fisher, ‘Asterisking Ennius: The Annales of Quintus Ennius and the Indo-European Tradition,’ JIES 36 (2008) 333–55.