Tag Archives: ignotum


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.”


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.