Cemel Dosce

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A few days ago, MikeTheDudeHenry posted a picture of his first tattoo on Reddit's /r/tattoos discussion board, with the explanation "Cemel Dosce = latin for 'Know Thyself'":

After some web search, archigenes traced the phrase back to this scene in The Matrix:

Following up, thenatman explained:

  • "nosce te ipsum" is the Latin translation typically given for this phrase, which is in fact originally from the Greek "γνῶθι σεαυτόν" .
  • Neither "cemel" nor "dosce" is actually a Latin word.
  • The above-linked clip from the matrix illustrates the likely origin of this phrase
  • This placard, critically written in Blackletter font, says "temet nosce", their chosen translation for this phrase.
  • Notably, even this seems incorrect, or at least non-standard, as the typical intensified second-person singular is "tutemet" .
  • Looking at this graphic, however, the whole thing suddenly begins to make sense : because of the Gothic lettering, someone misread the sign…the ornate T became a C, the l became another t, and the N became a D.
  • It is unlikely that it was OP himself who did this misreading. In fact, there are 3,460 results for this phrase as well as at least one other tattoo based on this misreading.

[Tip of the hat to Nat Hillard]

Update — as various commenters explain below, "temet nosce" is perfectly cromulent Latin for "know thyself", although temet is a post-classical form. Contrary to what thenatman says in the quote above, tutemet would not be correct in this context, since it's a nominative form; tetemet would work, but is rare at best.


  1. anon said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 5:40 am

    Plenty of Hebrew examples of this at http://www.badhebrew.com/. Hilarious.

  2. Carl said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    Hanzi Smatter has been featured on LL in the past. There is no language in which one cannot find a way to screw up a tattoo.

  3. Kris Rhodes said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 6:12 am

    Oddly, the clip you posted starts _after_ she says the latin phrase.

    [(myl) It doesn't really matter what she says — the point of the clip is that the font in which the phrase is displayed lends itself to misreading. But if you can find a more suitable clip, by all means link to it.]

  4. Kris Rhodes said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 6:44 am

    Ah, sorry–I somehow, amazingly, missed that there was a placard in the clip.

    Yes, I saw that you were talking about a placard. But I couldn't figure out what placard you were talking about. I figured there was one linked to on the Reddit page somewhere!

  5. Trimegistus said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    So a more accurate translation of "Cemel Dosce" might be: "I'm an idiot"?

  6. Rodger C said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    Reminds me of the band Procol Harum, which was supposed to mean "far out" in Latin. Apparently someone scribbled "Procul Forum" on a napkin, and …

  7. John said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 7:52 am

    Give him a break. He was too busy knowing himself to spend time learning anything else.

  8. Ian said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    apparently tutemet in classical, temet in late latin:



  9. Oskar said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    People who can't spell "Trismegistus" shouldn't throw stones.

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    @Trimegistus: So a more accurate translation …

    Or Camel Douche?

  11. John Emerson said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    Old joke about a woman who knitted Chinese characters from a menu into a sweater.. It meant "This dish is good but cheap". Ha.

    [(myl) My current favorite, from Hector Garcia's A Geek in Japan via Hanzi Smatter:

    At first glance, it seems like a kid with a supercool sweater with a Japanese character. The problem is that the character 痔 means “hemorrhoid” in Japanese. Probably the designer confused the character 侍, which means “samurai” and is pronounced “ji”, with the character 痔 that means “hemorrhoid” and is also pronounced “ji”…


  12. Jason said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    I am very impressed 2 words that could phonetically be words in any number of languages, but to my knowledge aren't.

  13. Marc Moskowitz said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 11:38 am

    "Tutemet" would actually be incorrect as well, since it's in the nominative case. "Tetemet" would be the correct double intensive second person singular accusative form, but it doesn't appear anywhere in Perseus or the BTL. "Tete" and "temet" both appear in Perseus, but "temet" actually has more hits since it shows up in the Vulgate 17 times and once in Bede. So mock away at "Cemel Dosce", but "Temet Nosce" is really just fine.

  14. Peter Christian said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    @Rodger C, Procol Harum is from the name of a pedigree cat Procul Harun, it was never meant to be to be Latin – in the same litter were Procul Hussein and Procul Lady Sonia. More detail than you can possibly need at http://www.procolharum.com/young_cat-claude++2+.htm

  15. Rodger C said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 11:58 am

    You learn so many things on this site. Thanks.

  16. kenny said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    I second what Marc M said. I actually regularly peruse Yahoo! Answers for people looking for Latin translation requests for tattoos, as a public service. It pains me dearly to see incorrect "Latin" tattoos. It's so sad that people don't know what they don't know…. :(

  17. DJ said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

    @Rodger: My sentiments exactly! What fun!

  18. scottyschup said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    I've said it many times before, and I'll say it again. If you do not have a reasonable amount of familiarity with a language, or at least know someone who does and can proofread it for you, DO NOT GET A TATTOO IN THAT LANGUAGE! It amazes me how people don't think these things through. They're PERMANENT for crying out loud.

    On a related note, my brother came to me with a tattoo idea: he wanted Philippians 4:13 in Hebrew. When I asked him why Hebrew and not Koine Greek, we learned that he had no idea what the original language of the New Testament was. So realizing his error, he asked for it in Greek and I begrudgingly provided it, however I did not include the reference. So he typed in p-h-i-l-i-p-p-i-a-n-s into a word processor using a Greek font and now has an amusing mixture of beautifully preserved Koine Greek and what can only be described as Biblical Greeklish.

  19. Brett said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    Misspelled tattoos in foreign languages and alphabets are a pretty common topic for humor, enough to have spawned a fair number of meta-jokes, such as: http://myapokalips.com/show/23#comic

  20. Emily said,

    August 29, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

    People could just spare themselves the trouble by getting a tattoo in their own culture's symbols/language. How does Latin represent this guy anyway?

    Although, I'll have to start biting my tongue when native English speakers start tattooing themselves with shit like, "No Thyself."

  21. MikethedudeHenry said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    Wow, interesting stuff. I obviously should have researched a lot more. As it stands, I have decided to get it covered up wit ha set of bad ass demon wings. Thanks for feeding my ego and making me just a bit more famous ;)

  22. Eli Anne said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:52 am

    For some reason I can't fathom, google translate translates "cemel dosce" to "custom yoga mats" http://translate.google.com/#la|en|temet%20nosce

  23. Eli Anne said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:53 am

    Sorry, I meant it translates *temet nosce* to that

  24. gnaddrig said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:55 am

    Maybe MikeTheDudeHenry could try to make the mistake look intentional, or 'ironise' it by adding a subtext in a more sombre typeface like Copperplate Gothic. Something like this:

    Cemel Dosce
    You read it here first

  25. Matt_M said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 3:48 am

    @Marc Moskowitz

    But is "temet nosce" just fine? All eighteen examples of "temet" from the Vulgate and Bede in Ian's second link are directly followed by "ipsum/ipsam/ipso" – which seems to indicate that "temet nosce" is unidiomatic, if not ungrammatical. I'd guess "nosce temet ipsum" would be the normal form in Late Latin.

    And why chose Late Latin anyway for a phrase that's clearly Classical in origins and associations?

  26. gnaddrig said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 4:20 am

    @ Matt_M: I guess most people have no idea what languages were used where and when and wouldn't know what "Classical" refers to, or that Greek might be seen as "the Classical" language. They know vaguely that in ancient times scientists and anybody who knew anything wrote in Latin. So they would see Latin as the language of choice for "old" quotations of this kind. Latin would be seen as cool and somehow impressive.
    The phenomenon is pretty common, though. Something similar happens when older people – typically spinsters at church ;) – use "rock music" as a synonym of "the (usually despicable, often downright evil) music young people listen to", when almost everybody knows that rock is just one of many (more or less) contemporary styles of music most of which are certainly not "rock music" – people have picked up a catch phrase and a little bit of superficial knowledge and think this one label covers everything, but it does not. Same as with the "Latin" text "Cemel Dosce".

  27. Scot said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 5:59 am

    Sorry, shouldn't the sixth bullet point be "the other t became l" instead of "the l became another t", or did I just take the wrong pill this morning?

  28. ZEUGS: Slang in London, Latein in der Matrix und Humor in Deutschland « USA Erklärt said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 6:12 am

    […] Pseudolatein im Englischen, während wir beim Language Log sind: Dort wird der Fall eines Mannes besprochen, der sich cemel dosce auf den Rücken tätowieren ließ, bekanntlich Latein für know […]

  29. Barry said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 6:37 am

    Maybe he can tell people that the tattoo artist had a cold at the time.

  30. JJM said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    I'm wondering whether this sort of thing is worthy of its own new term (like "eggcorn")?

    I'm thinking of something like a "camel-dusky": a nonsense word or words based on misreading an expression written in another language.

  31. Rodger C said,

    August 30, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    To return to the question of why the film didn't say "Nosce teipsum": Did someone translate the phrase from English to Latin without realizing it had entered English through Latin? This would add a new layer of cluelessness to the whole matter.

  32. Finarfin said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    Please excuse my propably bad english, but I'm a latin teacher, not an english teacher, teaching in Germany.

    First: what does "classical" mean concerning questions of latin grammar and vocabulary?

    During my studies at the university classical latin was defined as "used by Cicero at least two times, except the letters". Although there are other classical authors, their grammar and vocabulary isn't classical.

    Neither tutemet (which is clearly nominatve) nor temet is classical, not a single hit within Cicero's books.

    [(myl) Can you cite some argument, besides your memories of your university studies, that only Cicero counts as classical Latin? FWIW, "tutemet" occurs in Terence and in Lucretius — I can see no reason to deny them "classical" status.]

    If you like to use a intensified form of tu, please use tute (or tete, because in that sentence we need the accusative).
    Although Persus shows some hits by tete in Ciceros books (some text seem to be hits, but if you search in the text itself, there isn't that word), there are lots of hits for the word "tute" which is the nominative of the accusative "tete".

    But the latin translation of "γνῶθι σεαυτόν" you need an equivalent for "αυτόν". That's why you need the word "ipsum", which is the accusative of "ipse"
    That leeds us to the translation "nosce te ipsum", which is already shown in this blog. I don't see any reason to use an intensive form, especially if you are using a form of "ipse"

    But why should anyone except ancient Romans use the latin translation of a greek original?
    If you are Roman, o.k., it is your language, if you are British or American, you would prefer an english translation, if you want to use a translation.
    But to use a translation into a language that's not your own just makes no sense! Well perhaps if it is the language of someone, you want to tell something. If you want to tell french people, that they should know thyself, the french translation would be o.k.
    But because there are no living ancient Romans, please use the original, if you want to quote.

  33. Finarfin said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

    [QUOTE][(myl) Can you cite some argument, besides your memories of your university studies, that only Cicero counts as classical Latin? FWIW, "tutemet" occurs in Terence and in Lucretius — I can see no reason to deny them "classical" status.][/QUOTE]

    Terence and Lucretius are classical authors, but their latin isn't. If I had used during a style exercise a word or a combination of words and grammatical structures that is used by Terence but not by Cicero, id would have been marked as wrong. Cicero as the author with widely the most text of all is the standard of good latin and has been seen as this even in antiquity. His way of using the language has been a model from his days to our days. Caesar used the same way, medieval copists have sometimes changed or "corrected" texts of other authors into Cicero's latinity. Altough Quintilianus has been one of the best orators, perhaps second next to Cicero, he has used, like many manuscripts show, sometimes indicative and sometimes conjunctive in indirect questions. Seeing Cicero as standard many medieval copists changed even Quintilian's indirect questions into conjunctive.
    If you draw a line between right and wrong use of language, this line is allways artificial, latin has changed like every language during the centuries. But Cicero has been seen as the standard for centuries, more than a millennium.
    Nonetheless Terence, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid are classical authors, there texts are classical, but there language is seen as not pure as Cicero's.
    If Terence and Lucretius count as classical in questions of correct language, we need to define which authors are classical and which are not. Sallustius lived in the days of Cicero and Caesar, but allthough his texts are classical, allthough his text are important and formed the western culture, allthough the contents of his texts are classical, is quoius instead of cuius, ist quom instead of cum classical? Is "senati" the genitive of "senatus", because Sallustius used it? Is "aquai" instead of "aquae" the genitive of "aqua", because Vergil used it one single time?

  34. Finarfin said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Perhaps we can divede between "classical latin" and "latin of classical time".

    [(myl) This might be the silliest discussion we've ever had on this weblog, but let me cite the lexicographical authority of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has an entry for "classical Latin, n." glossed as "The Latin language of the classical period of ancient Roman literature". The Publisher's Note for the Oxford Latin Dictionary describes its mandate, set in 1931, as "treat[ing] classical latin from its beginnings to the end of the second century A.D."

    And for what it's worth, the Wikipedia entry says that

    Classical Latin in simplest terms is the socio-linguistic register of the Latin language regarded by the enfranchised and empowered populations of the late Roman republic and the Roman empire as good Latin. Most writers during this time made use of it.

    So I take your word for it that if you "had used during a style exercise a word or a combination of words and grammatical structures that is used by Terence but not by Cicero, id would have been marked as wrong", but this should be regarded as a quirk of some German teachers of Latin, and not a fact about the general meaning of the English phrase "classical Latin".

    And given the limited sample of vocabulary and constructions to be found in any single author, no matter how prolific, we can also observe that this was a rather illogical quirk, and that in this case the Wikipedia definition is a more coherent one.]

  35. Finarfin said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    [QUOTE] and not a fact about the general meaning of the English phrase "classical Latin".[/QUOTE]
    I I told you that my english isn't that good.

  36. Yosemite Semite said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    The problem isn't with your English, but with your pedantry.

  37. Finarfin said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    Well, now it is in the morning, and I have found a good reason for that, what I've been told during six years of studies at the university:
    every (!) german compendium of latin grammar refers exclusively to Cicero and Caesar, from "Hermann Menge: Repetitorium der lateinischen Syntax und Stilistik; Darmstadt 1979^17" and "Hans Rubenbauer, J.B. Hofmann: Lateinische Grammatik, München 1995" to the most important "Thorsten Burkard und Markus Schauer: Lehrbuch der lateinischen Syntax und Semantik; Damstadt 2000", all of them standard references at german universities. Especially the last one argues in it's prologe nearly the same way I did, page XV – XVIII. You may call it quirk, I prefer thorough or profound.
    So take it, read it or forget it.
    But I am very disappointed of the discussion culture here, because of being offended twice: "silliest discussion" and "pedantry", I don't now, wether "quirk" is offensive or not.
    I made my point, I've been asked for arguments, I told them

  38. gnaddrig said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 5:56 am

    Well, the exact definition of „classical Latin“ doesn’t really matter here. The point Finarfin makes in his first comment is simply that (1) there is no reason to use a Latin translation of a classical greek quotation if you want to convey the meaning of the text to an English speaking audience. Then he goes on to debate whether the translation „temet nosce“ (2) is correct and (3) can be accepted as being classical Latin.

    (1): The assumption here is that MikeTheDudeHenry wants convey the message „Know Thyself“ to the people who get to see the tattoo. I am convinced that this assumption is wrong. Probably the aim of the tattoo is rather to impress people and to offer an obvious starting point for conversations (presumably with young ladies Mr. Henry is interested in).

    (2): I have no idea as I forgot nearly all the Latin I ever managed to learn. But taking at face value a quote pulled from a movie seems a bit harebrained to me.

    (3): I don’t know how „classical Latin“ is defined. I guess using Cicero sort of as a benchmark would appear to be an obvious thing to do: Cicero is one of the most important authors of the late Roman republic that we know of (his work – unlike that of many of his contemporaries – has not been lost over the past two thousand years). His style came to be considered as exemplary, so if a Latin text is similar to what Cicero would or could have written it is safe to assume that it is a well-written text in truly classical Latin.

    I remember my Latin teacher referring to „Ciceronian periods“ as the perfection of good, classical Latin. He considered being able to „speak like Cicero wrote“ the, as it were, icing on the cake of learning Latin, something every student of Latin should strive after. And I don’t think this was an unusual point of view, at least in Germany.

    Limiting classical Latin to Cicero’s texts can’t be legitimate, though. That would be a bit like saying anything that’s not in Mark Twain can’t be good American English…

  39. Graeme said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    Tangential. But as a law academic, for a while, on my door, I've had the New Yorker cartoon: Lawyer 1 to lawyer 2: "remember, we can only do this pro bono because anti bono pays so well."

    I noticed today some student or colleague had carefully inked out 'anti' and substituted 'contra'.

    Isn't 'anti' good Latin as well as Greek?

  40. Tomas said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    @gnaddrig I have the classical greek form of "aesthetic", referring of course to that branch of philosophy, tatooed vertically below my calf. While I like to think that I got it because of my love of music (and as a reference to a song title as well), I gotta say it wonderfully serves a secondary purpose of wooing the ladies with its obscurity.

    Instead of underhandedly saying that his motives are base, you should give the kid credit for his, let's say, communicative strategies. Better than getting an epitaph tatooed there, IMO.

  41. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    Isn't 'anti' good Latin as well as Greek?

    No: 'ante' meaning 'before' is Latin, but that's another matter.

    On the other hand, the modern English meanings of 'pro' and 'anti' are so far removed from their original sources that insisting on linguistic purity here is a bit pointless. Oddly enough, Latin 'pro' and Greek 'anti' mean much the same thing, their basic sense being 'instead of'. 'anti' then develops to mean 'equivalent to' > 'opposite' > 'against', while 'pro' develops to mean 'on behalf of' > 'for'.

  42. Elizabeth said,

    September 2, 2011 @ 11:04 am

    'Update — as various commenters explain below, "temet nosce" is perfectly cromulent Latin for "know thyself"'

    What in the world does "cromulent" mean? It's not in Webster's III International or the OED.

    [(myl) LMGTFY.]

  43. Elizabeth said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    Thank you–great word. I posted too quickly, without checking my third go-to source, urbandictionary.com. Lesson learned….

  44. gnaddrig said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    @ Thomas: When I read your comment, my first reaction was to say „But I didn’t want to imply that the kid’s motives are base!“. And I didn’t, at least consciously. But I must admit that I referred to what I think is his main motive in a rather smug and condescending manner. I managed to make it sound as if I, being some sort of sophisticated genius, looking down on the plebs, wouldn’t ever be thrown back on such vulgar tactics. This was pretty cheap and I should have written something different. And you are right, the communicative strategy is not bad as such (that he got the text wrong is a different matter).

    Yours contritely…

  45. Pauls said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 10:23 am

    Perhaps the mistake is for the better. Otherwise, it would seem counterproductive – or at best 'ironic' – to have "know thyself" (in whatever language) tattooed on a part of one's body one cannot see without mirrors or other visual aids.

  46. Patrick said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

    The simplest translation for Greek "γνῶθι σεαυτόν" is just "nosce te ipsum".
    It's a literal translation:

    1. γι-γνώσκ-ειν (greek infinitif with reduplication augment) = -(g)nosc-ere (latin; the g got lost because of the pronounciation) = to know
    2. σε (enclitic personal pronoun) = te (latin; the change from s to t is normal) = you
    3. αὐτος = ipse = self (used to be the common translation for the greek pronoun; not only in Cicero's time)

    Forget all these "(te)temet" constructions. ;o)

  47. Matthew said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 4:14 am

    Well as they say, quidquid latine dictum sit, altum sonatur.

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