The sad shorthand in our evolving language

I need to catalogue some stock that I have been passing over for some time and this morning I was flicking through an early edition of Byron’s ‘The Bride of Abydos’. I found that one of the leaves was marked with an oval ink stamp ‘ex libris vibira pinto’. Not being aware of ‘vibira pinto’ I Googled the whole phrase (as one does).

Most of the links presented to me had matched with ‘ex libris’ and I followed several of them. I was sad to find that, on internet at least, ‘ex libris’ was defined in several as ‘a bookplate’ which seems rather like putting the cart before the horse.

I may be wrong (my latin instruction was over fifty years ago and I was never very attentive) but I have always understood ‘ex libris’ to mean ‘from the books of’ or ‘from the library of’, ex being the preposition ‘out of’ and libris being the ablative plural form of liber or book. Since bookplates began it has frequently appeared on them accompanied by the owners name as a reminder that the book has an owner and should be returned.

That ‘ex libris’ has come to mean a bookplate is a very lazy supposition. There is already a perfectly good word for that ownership label, it is ‘bookplate’. Just because many different bookplates have the common phrase ‘ex libris’ written or printed on them does not mean that it can be translated as ‘bookplate’. It is like saying that ‘no waiting’ means a metal sign at the side of the road.

Such shortcuts don’t improve our language and many of them debase it. It strikes me that the above is an example or should I use another and say ‘a for instance’?

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One Response to The sad shorthand in our evolving language

  1. Nigel says:

    ‘Ex libris’ also seems to be used more and more often to mean just ‘ex-library’ (as in public) – I presume that’s what the seller is trying to say when the words ‘ex libris’ appear in a book description with no qualification.

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