“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” as Terence (i.e., Terentius) wrote in Heauoton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor): “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.” Or, more idiomatically, “I am human; human affairs are my affairs.” In other words, everything’s your business (the character speaking was very nosy), and nothing’s off topic.

Well. You see the alienum there, and you see the alien in alieniloquy (which, by the way, is said like “soliloquy” but with “alien” instead of “sol”). Does it seem strange? Out of place? Incongruous? Yes, well, yes, that’s the point. Alien, our English word, comes from alienum, which comes from alius, meaning ‘other’ (also inflected as alium, as in Spem in alium, which is a lovely piece by Thomas Tallis, not a recipe for canned meat in garlic), which comes from Proto-Indo-European *h₂élyos, ‘beyond, other’, which is the source of English else and Irish eile (‘other’) and various other ‘other’ words; *h₂élyos in turn comes (according to the reconstructions) from *h₂el-, which has nothing to do with hell but does trace back forward to English all and Latin ultra and olim (‘one day’ or ‘often’ or ‘at that time’ or ‘once upon a time’, as in the Medieval song “Olim sudor Herculis,” a lengthy recitation of all the occasions Hercules happened to sweat), and of course a whole bunch of other words too.

But that’s neither here nor there. Well, no, actually, it is there, as in back in time. And it’s here, because alieniloquy is nothing alien to us in modern times, alas. There are some people who, given a microphone, will have quite a lot to say about quite a lot, and if you ask them a question, you get the answer to everything – well, perhaps everything but the question, because it’s been a great year, and we’ve accomplished a lot of things, like John over there, whose business has really been dealt a blow but he’s been helped by us, and it’s important to make sure he can keep feeding the children of the community, which has been here for a long time, the heart of the city, which is why we want to take this moment to talk about our plans for tax relief.

Given a microphone? Given any opportunity, in fact, some of them; you’ve met them at parties, I’m sure, where you manage to find out far more about the political climate of Transylvania or the intricacies of HO-scale train sets (also and more originally correctly H0, because half zero, but not half of nothing) than you had intended (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with either of those, or for that matter both at the same time, if you would like to construct a model train environment of Transylvania, complete with Carpathian mountains and, of course, some of that forest for being on the other side of which Transylvania is named – you did know that Transylvania means ‘land on the other side of the forest’, right? as in trans ‘other side’ plus sylva(n) ‘forest’ plus -ia ‘place’? obviously so called from the view of people to the west, in particular Hungarians, Latin speakers, and so on).

But the truth is that, while alieniloquy is annoying when people such as politicians and speakers at charity events and essayists do it, and some people who don’t let you get a word in edgewise, it’s nonetheless largely how our conversations go: we start with one topic and then we move on to another and another and another by tangents. And even more so our internal monologues proceed by alieniloquy, and that’s not just OK, it would be worrisome if it didn’t happen at least some of the time; the mind needs to wander, you know?

Oh, have I actually defined this word? the Oxford English Dictionary definition is “An instance of straying from the subject one is supposed to be talking about; rambling or evasive talk.” Which, yes, includes the proviso “one is supposed to be talking about,” whereas casual conversation and thoughts are not always so directed, but we do always suppose that we have a topic, at least until we have another. But, then, if we’re just talking about life, it’s all on topic, right? Because humani nihil a nos alienum puto? We can wander as wide as Molly Bloom’s closing thought soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting for that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathingsuits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear them I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope Ill never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats especially then still I like that in him polite to old women like that and waiters and beggars too hes not proud out of nothing but not always if ever he got anything really serious the matter with him its much better for them to go into a hospital where everything is clean but I suppose Id have to dring it into him for a month yes and then wed have a hospital nurse next thing on the carpet have him staying there till they throw him out or a nun maybe like the smutty photo he has shes as much a nun as Im not yes . . . [it continues for quite a long time]

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