It's not that ancient Romans didn't know a thing or two about wild sex. They had their Bacchanalia, after all. But lacking video technology, they had no expression for "sex tape." And that is why writing about Paris Hilton in Latin can sometimes be so difficillimum.
The editors of Vicipaedia Latina, the Latin version of the popular Wikipedia Internet reference site, were thus forced to wing it. In their article about the hotel heiress, they described Ms. Hilton's famous X-rated Web video as pellicula in interrete vulgate de coitu Paridis.
Which means, more or less, "the widely disseminated Internet movie of Paris's sex."
Improvising like that is necessary when using the language of chariots and togas to account for the world of SUVs and navel piercings. Vicipaedia is a labor of love for a small group of Latin buffs and weekend philologists whose motto might well be "What would Julius do?"
Their goal is a Latin reference work that is hip and alive -- or at least as much as can be expected from a tongue long since given up for dead. They write in authentic classical Latin, too, not in the kitschy feastus maximus stuff you might see at Caesars Palace.
Bartholomaeus Simpson is a skateboarder experto. As a pre-teen, Britannia Spears apparuit in Canali Disneyi cum Christina Aguilera et Iustino Timberlake in Sodalitate Mici Muris.
For those who think Latin means Cicero's orations, caveat emptor. "We're using an ancient language, but we're writing on a computer, not papyrus," says Josh Rocchio, a graduate student and one of the most active editors. "There isn't anything that doesn't belong in Vicipaedia. You can write about Julius Caesar, or you can write about blue cheese."
That up-to-the-minute outlook, says Rafael Garcia, another editor, is a boon to beginning Latin students since "it's a little more down to earth reading about Britney Spears than it is reading about Caesar conquering Gaul."
Wikipedia is a reference work to which anyone can contribute. It comes in more than 200 languages; the English version, with more than two million articles, is by far the biggest.
Vicipaedia has 15,000 articles. Catullus, Horace and the Roman Senate all are there; so are musica rockica, Georgius Bush and cadavera animata, a k a zombies. You can read in Latin about hangman (homo suspensus), paper airplanes (aeroplanum chartaceum) and magic 8-balls (pila magica 8), as well as about famous Italians like Leonardo da Vinci and the Super Mario brothers.
"It's a slightly odd thing to do in this century," admits Andrew Dalby, another contributor. "When I first saw Vicipaedia, I thought, 'What's the point?' But then I started working on it, and I found it addictive."
Professional Latinists say they're generally impressed with Vicipaedia. While articles written by beginning Latin students often contain errata, "the articles that are good are in fact very good," said Robert Gurval, chairman of the UCLA classics department.
Latin is undergoing a resurgence. High-school-Latin enrollments are up, in part because students hope college admissions offices will be impressed to see such a hard subject on their transcripts. There are Latin translations of Dr. Seuss, Elvis Presley and Harry Potter. In Finland -- a Latinist hotbed, apparently -- there are weekly radio news broadcasts.
Mr. Rocchio, 24 years old, might well be a poster boy for this new, hip Latin. Mention "classics scholar," and most people conjure up a tweedy fellow sipping port next to a bust of Ovid. Mr. Rocchio wears regulation battered T-shirts and jeans. In his spare time, he is the drummer in a rock band.
He went to college intending to major in physics and math, but on a whim took a Latin class and fell in love. "I liked its structure and its simplicity, the way it can take very complex ideas and express them in a couple of words." He is now a graduate student in Latin and Greek at the University of Maryland.
He chanced upon Vicipaedia last year; at the time, it was full of musty articles about Roman military campaigns, et cetera. Other Latin buffs were happening onto the site at the same time, and as a group they decided to liven things up.
Mr. Rocchio's contributions go back and forth between the traditional and the contemporary. He has written on math and chess but is especially proud of his essay on the American drinking game (ludus potatorius Americanus) known as beer pong (pong cervisiale). He says scholarship is important, even though most readers don't use Vicipaedia as a reference, per se, but instead as language practice.
Most of the work among the editors is collegial, though now and then debates break out. One involved the proper neologism for "computer." Vicipaedia calls it a computatrum, despite the vehement opposition of editor Justin Mansfield, who says the word is just bad Latin.
"You can't use 'trum' at will to make new words," insists Mr. Mansfield, also a classics grad student. " 'Trum' actually fell out of use around the time of the Punic Wars. It's like 'th' in English. You can say 'warmth,' but you can't say 'coolth.' "
Mr. Mansfield lobbied for computatorium but was outvoted. He prevailed, though, with "particle accelerators," the atom smashers used by physicists, which, per his suggestion, are known on Vicipaedia as particularum acceleratorium.
Observes Mr. Rocchio, "We tend to argue about words ad infinitum."
Most Vicipaedia articles duplicate topics also covered on English Wikipedia, though occasionally, when an editor is interested in a particular subject, it will get exclusive Latin treatment. J.W. Love, an editor who is also an anthropology professor, has published Latin translations of Samoan poems.
So why bother? Vicipaedia's volunteers usually say they simply enjoy keeping up with the Latin they had in school. Mr. Garcia, for instance, teaches physics in Massachusetts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and says he likes keeping in practice well enough to be able to read classics like Isaac Newton's "Principia" in the original.
Mr. Rocchio's coda: "Latin has a tradition of 2,700 years ... and we don't want that to end. Latin isn't dead, it just smells funny."