My choice of word this week isn’t as unseasonal as it looks. I’m not talking about ‘pace’ as synonymous with ‘speed’: the word that has recently been incorporated into a new phrase, ‘at pace’, which is used adverbially to mean ‘fast’ or ‘rapidly’.  

No, my ‘pace’ isn’t even pronounced like that. It’s a Latin word meaning ‘peace’ – as in ‘Requiescat in pace’: ‘let him (or her, or it) rest in peace’. The great Punch cartoonist George du Maurier (masterly chronicler of the comedy of late Victorian England, and grandfather of the novelist Daphne) produced a drawing showing an Englishman unable to explain to a French porter that he wants to leave his luggage safe in the porter’s hands until he can pick it up later. In desperation, he remembers his schoolboy Latin and tells the man: ‘Requiescat in pace, resurgam’. (‘Resurgam’, as on gravestones, meaning, ‘I will rise again’.) 

Some recent examples of the ‘pace’ I’m thinking of: ‘Pace Mr Hancock, nothing about this small and unpleasant virus thing is “abundantly clear”.’  – Spectactor, 11 April 2020. 

‘“Worse than they are in fact.” Pace Celine, though peace can hardly be the right word, this is a very Proustian thought.’ – London Review of Books, August 2022. 

I don’t know, from the evidence of this second extract, whether or not the writer was aware of the correct meaning and pronunciation of the word ‘pace’ as he uses it here. Is he joking or has he misunderstood? It is a source of much confusion even among people who use it often. Perhaps we can clarify the matter a little. 

We’re dealing with ‘pace’ as used (often ironically) in English to mean ‘by leave of [someone specified]’, a term usually written rather than spoken (I’m relying here on A. J. Bliss, A Dictionary of Foreign Words & Phrases in Current English, 1966). This is the sense intended in my quotations.  On the odd occasions when it is spoken aloud, it is confused with the church Latin ‘pace’, as in ‘requiescat in pace’. Phrases of the latter kind are usually pronounced in the Italian way with the ‘a’ short, and the ‘c’ sounded as ‘ch’ (‘pah-chay’). Because it’s rarely uttered, and so not in the domain of common speech, those daring enough to say the expression aloud tend to assume that the church (i.e. Italian) form is correct. 

But this is wrong. Bliss gives three possible modes of Latin pronunciation, ‘traditional’, ‘Italian’, and ‘Reformed’ (or ‘Classical’). The last is the ‘public school’ system introduced about 1900; it is artificial and pseudo-scientific, doesn’t sound at all like a living language. The second has strong ecclesiastical and medieval connotations and very specific spheres of application, like the example I’ve already given. The first is the ‘natural’ mode, in which ‘both vowels and consonants are pronounced as in English.’ It is the usage of English legal Latin, and of the older Universities. Hence, ‘pace’ should be pronounced like other Latin tags, that is, with consonants and vowels anglicised: ‘pay-see’. To ensure that it is distinguished from other words spelled ‘pace’ it ought perhaps to be written ‘pacē’ (though context usually helps). It is often italicized, but this seems only to encourage the ecclesiastical as opposed to the legal pronunciation. (‘Pace’ in this sense is not in the O.E.D., but Bliss cites the Stanford Dictionary of Anglicised Words and Phrases, 1892, and the New English Dictionary Supplement, 1933.) 

You will very likely never have reason to use this obscure Latinism, but it does crop up, and is often misunderstood. Better to be informed than to struggle in ignorance. 

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