Immeth idiotus?
January 10, 2010 11:50 AM   Subscribe

From Darwin's autobiography: 'Some of these boys were rather clever, but I may add on the principle of "noscitur a socio" that not one of them ever became in the least distinguished.' What does "noscitur a socio" mean in this context?

It's all in the question. My latin is nonexistent, and google searches only suggest the idea of the company you keep, which I don't quite get here.
posted by bigbopper to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
More context is here.

I don't know anything about Latin per se, but it seems to mean "You may know him by the company he keeps".

"Him" in this case would most likely mean Darwin himself--getting to the idea the he himself, like his friends, may have been rather clever but didn't appear headed toward a career of particularly high distinction.
posted by flug at 12:01 PM on January 10, 2010

And I'll let those with more particular knowledge of the British class system of the time weigh in, but "distinguished" seems to have some class overtones as well--he wasn't exactly hanging out with the lords & nobles, so to speak, but a distinctly lower class. Sort of the businessmen & shopkeeper types as opposed to the more distinguished/upper classes.

He says his classmates fell into that category and "noscitur a socio" ("you know him by the company he keeps") implies that he, himself, did as well.
posted by flug at 12:09 PM on January 10, 2010

Literally "he's known by his associate." But it sounds like it's equivalent to "it's not what you know but who you know" here.
posted by nangar at 12:31 PM on January 10, 2010

sorry - for his associate.
posted by nangar at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2010

"distinguished" seems to have some class overtones as well

Not quite, because it's "become... distinguished", which suggests future achievements over the privileges of birth. However, "distinction" in that context implies achievements that could be measured against the institutional hierarchies of Victorian life: church, academia, politics, commerce. (Also, Darwin was from a comfortably wealthy family of relatively famous heritage.)

So the context is Darwin's inherent modesty at work: like the company he kept, Darwin doesn't consider his life and career to have been particularly distinguished. Another example: "I have a fair share of invention, and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe, in any higher degree."

(The first of the four-part In Our Time special on Darwin discusses his time and peers at Cambridge.)
posted by holgate at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Darwin could have written: 'I was a clever schoolboy, but there was little to suggest that I would grow up to be a distinguished man.' However, this would have sounded rather boastful, so instead he makes the point indirectly with reference to his schoolfellows: 'A man is known by the company he keeps; and although some of my friends were clever, none of them grew up to be distinguished.' Then he wraps it up a bit more by putting the proverb into Latin.

The implication of the passage is that Shrewsbury School failed to bring out the talents of its cleverest pupils. But it's typical of Darwin that instead of saying so directly, he leaves it to the reader to work out that this is actually a damning indictment of his old school. (More on Darwin's schooldays here, if you're interested.) As with Darwin's views on religion, you have to read between the lines.
posted by verstegan at 1:58 PM on January 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

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