What's the meaning of "can only be recounted in Latin" in the context of the following passage? Of course, I know its lexical meaning but I guess it's some kind of allusion or in some historical context that I do not know.

people in parts of Asia who carry their sick outside and leave them to die, a tribe in Peru that fattens and eats children, and a Saracen holy man whose way with goats can only be recounted in Latin.

This passage is from Anthony Gottlieb's The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy.

  • Please quote the entire passage. The surrounding context is needed. – Eddie Kal Feb 27 at 17:46
  • 2
    Since the other examples are pretty horrific, it may be that the man's behaviour with goats is seen as too disgusting to be described in plain English. – Kate Bunting Feb 27 at 17:49
  • 1
    It's not an established idiom, so your guess is probably as good as anyone else's. Gottlieb seems to be a relatively "academic" writer (he was a Two-Year Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford from October 2017,) so perhaps he thinks Latin is particularly good for explaining "complicated" things. And whatever this Saracen holy man does with goats is very obscure. But it's obviously essentially a facetious usage, so he's really just poking fun at whatever that priest-cum-shepherd might do (I'm not sure about the cannibalistic Peruvians) – FumbleFingers Feb 27 at 17:50
  • 1
    "A woman for children, a boy for love, a goat for pleasure." – Michael Harvey Feb 27 at 18:22
  • 2
    In the 19th century, it was common to leave obscene passages in Latin to protect the morals of those innocents too unlearned to handle them. But the dating's off for that. – Mary Feb 28 at 3:07

I once happened upon a book of "Practical Theology" or some such title, aimed to Catholic priests. Essentially it was advice to priests involved in counseling members of their parishes. There were some passages, those dealing with sexual matters, which were in Latin. Perhaps the passage in question was an allusion to that practice.


To recount (in this context) is to tell a story or describe something. Latin is the language used by ancient Romans, and as the language of the church, science, and medicine in Europe until recently. There are things that have descriptions in medical Latin, for which the English words are vulgar or obscene.

So this means that the Saracen's way with goats can only be described in Latin. Yes, this is an allusion: the description would be too disgusting to be printed if it were described in English. To accurately describe what the Saracen did with goats, you need to use the scientific or medical terminology of Latin.

There is no specific folk tale that the author is referring to.

  • 1
    It is said that when Queen Victoria was giving birth, her doctors were obliged to speak only in Latin to each other. – Michael Harvey Feb 27 at 18:23
  • 1
    Old joke. Nurse: “Where is your wound?” Soldier: “Sorry miss, I can't tell you, I never learned Latin.” – Anton Sherwood Feb 28 at 3:16

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.