Daily Archives: February 24, 2023


America has a set of matching acronyms for some of its most important people: POTUS, the President Of The United States; FLOTUS, the First Lady Of same; VPOTUS, the Vice President; SCOTUS, the Supreme Court (not the 13th-century theologian)… But how about hoi polloi, the huddled masses of America, the populace at large, the insignificant general nobodies of the United States? Is there not some matching word that may dignify one such for a glorious scintilla of history?

Certainly there is, and it’s been around longer than any of the others – as long as you don’t mind a backronym. It’s IGNOTUS (or, in the original Latin, IGNOTVS, since they didn’t have the variant rounded U form for the vowel). We may say it stands for Insignificant General Nobody Of The United States. But the ancient Romans would have just said it meant ‘unknown’ – or ‘strange, odd, weird’, or ‘ignorant’. Literally it is just the negated form of the past participle of nosco ‘I know’ (there’s a phantom g, lost from the verb, that reappears in places like this).

And because it’s a past participle, it varies according to gender. Ignotus is masculine; the feminine form would be ignota (which, as IGNOTA, can be Insignificant General Nobody Of The America, and if you protest that that’s ungrammatical, I don’t know why you have such high expectations), and the neuter form – should we have any need for it – is ignotum, which you might actually see in real life from time to time in its Latin use, as in, for instance, the musical work Magnum Ignotum (‘the great unknown’ – nothing to do with guns or ice cream bars) composed by Giya Kancheli. The plurals are also available: ignoti, ignotae, ignota. And, for the plural genitive (should you be so possessed), ignotorum and ignotarum.

There is, I should concede, an actual English word that was formed from ignotus in the way English words often have been: ignote. It can be an adjective, suitable mainly for use in poetry, meaning ‘unknown’; or it can be a noun, suitable mainly for use in the 17th century, meaning ‘unknown person’ – or, as the ignotes, the whole class of persons of no repute. Which matches pretty well Insignificant General Nobodies Of The United States (only, of course, it is not so nationally specific). But ignote does not quite convey ‘weirdo’ or ‘ignorant’ as ignotus does.

Of course we don’t need a word for someone who’s ignorant; we already use ignoramus. But before you go ahead and form ignorama, ignoramum, et cetera on the basis of that, I have something to tell you that you might not know: ignoramus is neither a noun nor an adjective in Latin. It’s a present tense plural verb. It means ‘we don’t know’. English got the word when it was used as the name of the title character in George Ruggle’s 1615 play Ignoramus. This also means that there is no plural ignorami; in fact, since it means ‘we don’t know’, in one sense it already is plural – the singular would be ignoro, ‘I don’t know’.

But we know ignoramus. It is ignotus that is, for most of us, unknown. Still, we may be forgiven. Why not? After all, ignotus also means ‘forgiven’. In that sense, it’s the past participle of ignosco, which is formed on the same nosco root, but in this case is negated and then adjectivized, rather than being adjectivized and then negated. It’s like the difference between inflammable formed from inflame and able and meaning ‘able to be inflamed’ and inflammable formed from in and flammable and meaning ‘not able to be flamed’.

Well, it’s not quite that big a difference – it’s not an opposite. It’s just that forgiveness is putting something out of mind, whereas the unknown is something that is just not put in mind. Either way, it’s something that’s let slide: as a POTUS or FLOTUS might think on encountering an IGNOTUS, “Never mind.”