Did you come across the phrase ‘nil carborundum illegitimi’ and you’re wondering what it means? In this article, we’ll look at the definition, origin, examples, and more.
In short, ‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ is a Dog Latin phrase that means:
Dog Latin is a term that refers to a phrase that imitates Latin, often in a humorous way. Other versions of the same phrase include illegitimis non carborundum, Noli illegitimi carborundum, and illegitimi non carborundum.
Though ‘nil carborundum illegitimi’ might sound like an ancient Latin phrase, it actually doesn’t have any meaning in Latin and is what is known as a ‘mock-Latin aphorism.’
This is phrase is considered ‘Dog Latin’ or ‘Cod Latin,’ meaning that it imitates Latin. Frequently, this is done by “translating” English words or words from other languages into Latin by treating them as if they were Latin words and conjugating or declining them.
So, given all of that, what does it mean?
The most common translation is, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
‘Nil corborundum illegitimi’ or ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ is a way to communicate to someone that they shouldn’t be bothered, saddened, or dejected by someone else.
The word ‘bastard’ historically means “a person born of parents not married to each other” but is now more commonly used as a derogatory term referring to “an unpleasant or despicable person.”
There are lots of different variations of the phrase ‘nil carborundum illegitimi,’ including:
All of these have the same general translation of “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The word ‘nil’ is Latin for “nothing” or “zero.” It’s a contraction of the word nihil, which itself is a shortened version of the word nihilum, which means “nothing” or “(of) no value.”
“Carborundum” isn’t a Latin word but instead is an abrasive that is used for industrial grinding purposes. Also known as silicon carbide, this is a hard chemical compound that has been mass-produced since the late nineteenth century for use as an abrasive.
“Illegitimi” could be interpreted as the nominative plural of the Latin word ‘illegitimus,’ which means either “outlaw” or “unlawful.” However, it is most commonly understood to refer to the English word “illegitimate” in the sense of “bastard.” In this instance, the word “bastard” is being used as a generic insult.
It was during World War II that the phrase ‘nil carborundum illegitimi’ was first used. Eric Partridge, a New Zealand-British lexicographer of the English language, attributed it to British army intelligence during the very early period of the war.
US Army General “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell adopted the phrase as his motto during the Second World War, using the phrasing of ‘illegitimati non carborundum.’ 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater later popularized it in the United States.
The unofficial school song of Harvard University also uses this phrase, which was added in 1953. The first verse is composed of nonsensical Latin cliches:
Illegitimum non carborundum;
Domine salvum fac.
Illegitimum non carborundum;
Domine salvum fac.
Veritas non sequitur?
Illegitimum non carborundum—ipso facto!
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the ‘illegitimi non carborundum’ version of the phrase did not appear in published texts until about 1956. It has become quite a bit more common in publications since the early 2000s.
We find the phrase used in a publication entitled:
Hearings Before the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs United States Senate from 1973:
“All I can say, as we say in Louisiana, “illegitimi non carborundum.” If you want a translation for that, I will give it to you later.”
The phrase also shows up in a 1976 publication of the:
House of Commons Debate from the Canadian Parliamentary House of Commons:
“If that be the case, the policy of those on this side of the House who are concerning themselves with this particular bill will be “illegitimi non carborundum.”
A 1973 Handbook for the Construction Superintendent also refers to the Dog Latin phrase:
“When the man was incorrigible we used the motto: “Illegitimi non carborundum.””
We also come across this variation of ‘nil carborundum illegitimi’ in Alden Hatch’s 1973 book:
The Lodges of Massachusetts:
“One thing they were both determined on was to retain their senses of humor. To remind themselves they put a sign on Jerry’s desk which read, “Illegitimi non carborundum– which freely translated means, “Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”
For a final example, here’s an excerpt from the 1961 publication Proceedings by the National Forum on Trucking Industrial Relations:
“On the other hand, this topic can be considered from the viewpoint of The Labor Relations profession, whose revered motto “Illegitimi non Carborundum est” had long stirred the hearts, and eased the pains, of its members.”
How would ‘Nil Carborundum Illegitimi’ be used in a sentence?
Let’s take a look at some examples:
What are some other words and phrases that have a similar meaning to 'nil carborundum illegitimi'?
Here are some options:
‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ is a phrase that means “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Though it sounds like Latin, it’s actually Dog Latin, meaning it’s a phrase that imitates Latin in a humorous way. There are a number of other versions of the same phrase, including illegitimis non carborundum, Noli illegitimi carborundum, and illegitimi non carborundum.
Are you ready to learn more phrases and expand your English vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, adages, sayings, and more!