Daily Archives: April 14, 2012


There’s a poem I wrote several years ago that I never published anywhere, don’t know why. It would probably be best suited for a kids’ book, or at least a book for kids who don’t mind a couple of bits of Latin tossed in (in other words, just the best kind of kid). It’s not serious poetry, but I’m fond of it. Here it is:

by James Harbeck

This is a picture of something I lost.
I bought it somewhere; forget what it cost.
I’m pretty sure that it didn’t get tossed.

I took this picture the following day
just to recall that this thing got away.
It’s not for art; it has nothing to say.

There on the table you’ll see there’s a space
where it would be if it sat in its place.
I’m holding that spot for it now, just in case.

Have a good look so you’ll identify it
if, on some mission, you happen to spy it –
just bring it back here and end my disquiet.

You see, it’s the absence ’twixt table and air –
just look at the picture; there’s no need to stare,
you can see at a glance: it’s the thing that’s not there.

So bring me my thing and I’ll toss out this photo
the moment I have it concrete and in toto,
as large as the life and no longer ignoto.

Until then, I’m keeping this space in its spot.
But if it comes never, it won’t get forgot—
I still have my snap of the there that it’s not.

Now, what’s the unknown word in there? Ignoto. (You’ve probably seen in toto before.) Indeed, you won’t find it in a dictionary. Certainly not in an English dictionary. It’s unlikely you’ll find ignoto in a Latin dictionary, either.

So I just made it up? No… I knew the word ignotum, Latin for “unknown” (neuter; masculine is ignotus, feminine ignota). A dictionary will give you the nominative form. But the dative/ablative form is ignoto. Meaning (according to context) “by, from, or to the unknown”. So there. Now you know.

But this word ignotum, now. I like it. It’s a good word. As I sit here writing this, I’m listening to Magnum Ignotum, composed by Giya Kancheli and performed by members of the Koninklijk Filharmonik Orkest van Vlaanderen. It’s a delicate and dark piece, full of the great unknown. Which is what magnum ignotum means: “great unknown” (I admit it does look like it means “large bottle of wine without a label”).

The taste of ignotum? I’m tempted to say “I don’t know,” but actually I do. It has a strong taste of ignorant and other ignore words, naturally; they’re related. It may also remind you of ignoble, though I would not say that the unknown is per se ignoble, though the anagram gum on it rather is. And it has airs of ingot and I got ’em, both of which convey senses of gaining value – does the unknown add value? Often it does. Omne ignotum pro magnifico, as the saying goes: “everything unknown is taken as great” – the unknown tends to be exaggerated in value or importance.

At the heart of this word is that /gn/, the tongue stopping at the back and releasing with a nasal at the front; it makes me think of having a cold. But it made the ancient Greeks and Romans think of knowing: the gno root shows up in a variety of words relating to knowledge.

I don’t suppose we really need this word as an addition to English; we have a word already, unknown, which happens to be cognate – the un like the in that became i in ignotum, the know coming from the same Indo-European source as gno. But it fills a nice little spot, an obscure word for the obscure, even an unknown word for the unknown. Why not? If you look up ignotum you’ll likely first find the potted phrase ignotum per ignotius, “the unknown by the more unknown”, referring to an explanation that is more obscure than what it is explaining. Mounting confusion – sure to put some gum on it. How ignoble. But sometimes fun.