The Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus wrote a textbook of rhetoric in which he illustrated the flexibility of language by writing the sentence “Your letter delighted me greatly” one hundred and ninety-five different ways.
Erasmus was a superstar of the early 16th century CE philosophical set: He wrote widely and well, his editions of the Greek and Latin New Testament were published at a time when the seeds of the Protestant reformation were being sown, and his attempts to stay neutral between the Catholic Church and reformers like Luther and Calvin are the stuff of legend.
All that aside, Erasmus was a fan of language and he was a teacher. His work De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia, translated into English as Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, was first conceived as a textbook for eager youths in the 1490s. Erasmus left a draft behind after a trip to Italy and learned that someone else was planning to publish that draft without his permission. This forced his hand, so he quickly wrote up another, better version and published it himself in 1512.
De Copia was immensely popular throughout Europe. The whole text really wants to convey the message that language should be abundant: verbose, varied, and full of flavour and life – and nowhere is this more apparent than Chapter 33. This chapter illustrates the abundance of language by taking a couple of extremely boring sentences and showing just how many ways they could be re-written. It’s a virtuoso performance of rhetorical creativity.
Consider the simple sentence “your letter delighted me greatly.” It’s the kind of thing you’d write dozens of times without thinking about it any further, but Erasmus rendered that one sentence 195 different ways. They’re all in Latin, but the Scriptorium Daily blog has helpfully provided a translation of some of them so you can see what he was going for:
Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.
Erasmus went on to provide two hundred variations on “always, as long as I live, I shall remember you.” The old softie.
I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.