omnibus notum, scilicet

Good scholars always want to add to their skill kits, obviously, but they can sometimes be a silly set too. There are times when levity is the only sensible response to the gravity of the situation – to wit, when there is something that everyone knows, or that follows easily from something everyone knows, but no one has bothered proving. It’s not that citations bring excitation, but there is an expectation that if you say it you can cite a source for it. If it’s notable, it should be footnotable; absence of a note would be ominous. So when you are making a point in a paper, and you get to something that’s important to the point, and it’s an “everybody knows” thing or a “well of course” thing, but you can’t find prior research to support it, what do you do?

What you want to do is footnote it with “Obviously” or “Everybody knows this.” But that seems rather… um… frank. Frankly English, for one thing. This is scholarship, you know! You don’t put “Smith, the same one I just cited,” you put “Smith, ibid.”; you don’t put “Smith, here and there throughout the book,” you put “Smith, passim.” So what do you put instead of “Everybody knows this” or “Obviously”? I’d be tempted to put res ipsa loquitur, a well-known phrase that means ‘the thing speaks for itself’, but it has a specific legal use – to wit: the very nature of a particular accident is evidence of negligence (i.e., that kind of accident can’t happen unless someone screws up).

So I put the question to fellow scholars on Twitter, which in such matters can be an omnibus full of notables. Various suggestions came through. One from Laura Gibbs that I especially liked was omnibus notum. This does not mean a post-it note on a transit vehicle; it’s Latin for ‘known by all’. It can easily be abbreviated to om. not. or o.n. If the reader sees you footnote “An egg will probably break if you drop it from shoulder height onto a tile floor” and says, “A footnote? Are you joking?” you can say “I om. not.

An even more cogent one could be what Gregory Stringer suggested: scilicet. It’s a term used in various Latin writings; it is actually a synthesis of scio licet, which means ‘it is permitted to know’, but the Romans used it to mean ‘obviously’ or ‘naturally’ or, in a concessive manner, ‘of course’, to be followed with a sed (‘but’) clause. It can be pronounced in the classical Latin way, “ski li ket,” or it can be said in the English way, like “silla set” or “sigh la set.”

The fact that there is an existing English-style pronunciation for it tells us that it is in use as an English word.1 So we’re all set, right? Hmm, well. There are two English usages. One, no longer current, means ‘doubtlessly’ sarcastically: “Should Trump become president, he will scilicet brush up his diplomatic skills.” The other one uses it in another sense available from its construction: ‘evidently’ or ‘to wit’. That is to say, it means ‘that is to say’ – i.e., it’s another way to say i.e. It’s like a clickable plus sign that has expanded to show the extra information. So if you set scilicet the reader may be conditioned to expect just that thing you were using it to avoid: an explanation.

Ah, drat. No rest for the learnèd. However obvious the thing, however needless an explanation seems to be, you can’t always conceal it, or skip it, or hope it’s too obvious for a note. Why not? Because, as Mark Twain wrote, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”2 The great advances of knowledge have come from disproving the obvious.3 So you sigh and see what you can set down.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for setting this thought train in motion.

 

1Res ipsa loquitur.

2Actually, this can’t be found in any of Twain’s writings, though he did write “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar. A similar quote is attributed to Twain’s contemporary Josh Billings: “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” This likewise does not appear in Billings’s work. But Billings’s 1874 Everybody’s Friend, or Josh Billling’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor has “I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.” (Thanks to Bob Kalsey, http://wellnowbob.blogspot.ca/2008/07/it-aint-what-you-dont-know.html, for this.) In any case, the idea itself has an intuitive appeal and a certain… obviousness?

3If this doesn’t seem obvious to you, I can’t see why not.

4 responses to “omnibus notum, scilicet

  1. In the tradition of abbreviations, videlicet (on same pattern as scilicet) gives us viz.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viz.

  2. This was a fun read. And I like the sound of omnibus notum.

    Not being a Latin scholar I have no better suggestions, though I’d be tempted to try the non-Latin t.u.a. (truth universally acknowledged).

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