The die is cast: Meaning?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Dinosaur, Aug 15, 2009.

  1. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

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    Caesar was referring to gaming dice when he said "The die is cast". He meant that he was taking a bold chance by crossing the Rubicon River with his army, indicating that he intended to overthrow the emperor. He was also indicating that he was making an irrevocable decision.

    When I was about ten years old, I was familiar with various forging processes & thought the phrase referred to a forging die, not realizing that metallurgy was not that advanced at the time of Julius Caesar. It is amusing that the meaning of both interpretations is quite similar.

    Caesar was stating that he was making an irrevocable decision. When a forging die is finally cast, there is no way to change the shape of the objects to be forged. All that is missing is the chance taking implied by the dice metaphor.

    I did not learn of my mistake until I was an adult. When I mentioned my erroneous interpretation to a girl friend, she laughed because she had a similar misunderstanding of the Caesar phrase.

    "Cast" is also an archaic term for dying material. My friend had a grandmother who used the phrase "The dye is cast." The grandmother once explained to my friend that once the dye is cast, you can never recover the original color of the material. You can only cast a color darker than the current color.

    Once again, an interpretation which indicates an irrevocable decision.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 17, 2009
  2. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Interestingly "die," meaning a device for shaping material, and "die," meaning a gaming cube, are the same word. The first meaning was the original, but the second meaning came about because the gaming cube with its dots resembles a stamp used for turning out intricate parts. It's a word of French origin we borrowed after the Norman Invasion. In the gaming sense, the word "die" is actually a back-formation from "dyce," originally a plural with no singular like "scissors" or "pantaloons," which comes from French des.

    The origin of the word is obscure but most sources presume that it's from Latin datum, "given, placed," past participle of dare, "give." This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the "dado," an architectural feature and a word whose derivation from datum is more obvious, is sometimes called a "die."

    A language like English that freely assimilates words from other languages is bound to have unrelated homonyms with disparate meanings. "Die," meaning to cease living, is a legitimate Anglo-Saxon word passed down to us from the Germanic tribes that first migrated from Asia to Scandinavia 3KYA. "Dye," meaning a coloring substance, is also an authentic Germanic word, but borrowed from Old Norse deag, rather than handed down from our own ancestral language.

    "Cast" is also a word we borrowed from Old Norse. The original meaning is "throw," and its use in manufacturing comes from the pre-industrial way of tossing the hot metal, wax, etc., into the mold by hand.
     
  3. mathman Valued Senior Member

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    "He meant that he was taking a bold chance by crossing the Rubicon River with his army, indicating that he intended to overthrow the emperor."

    Rome did not have an emperor then. It was a republic under the control of an oligarchic Senate, dominated by strong personalities, like Pompey.

    Caesar's heir Octavian became the first emperor - named Augustus.
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2009
  4. CharonZ Registered Senior Member

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    Actually in Latin the phrase "alea iacta est" does not allow that much ambiguity as alea refers to the die in the context of a die game. I.e. the die has been thrown.
    It is even possible, but I am not sure about that anymore that alea actually referred to a type of game itself that used dice.
     
  5. Dinosaur Rational Skeptic Valued Senior Member

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    If I knew latin when I was ten or so, I would probably have know that there was no word for die in the sense of a forging die.
    I would also have known that the word used by Caesar referred to the game & nothing else.

    The point I was trying to make is that as a preteen, the context & the word die to me related to a forging die. I was unfamiliar with craps or other dice games. I might not have known that die was the singular of dice.

    My erroneous interpretation of the metaphor happened to be not far from the intended meaning implied by the context. If my interpretation had been far from the implied intent, I probably would have asked for clarification.

    English seems to allow for such misinterpretations.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 17, 2009
  6. Stryder Keeper of "good" ideas. Staff Member

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    I would have posed that the 'Die' refered too is actually from Minting (Creating Coins)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coining_(metalworking)

    If you can truly link this back to Rome, then you could probably suggest that they were particular about coins and how they were "imprinted". Afterall if a coin was pressed and the die bounced and generated a second hit, it would undermine the quality of the coin and perhaps have upset either the person overseeing the making of the coins or the government itself. (Perhaps they would even see it as some sort of defacement punishable in some way)

    It would of course take a historian to factor in the truth rather than just supposition.
     
  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    No, but it had a Caesar. The name "Caesar" has been appropriated in subsequent eras as a title for a national leader. With fairly faithful pronunciation and only spelling normalization it became Kaiser in German, and a few hundred years earlier, with predictable phonetic changes, it became Tsar in Russian (often spelled "czar" in English, for reasons I may never understand). In Yiddish, the tsars were simply called keyzers. Some scholars suggest that King Kjárr, in Norse mythology, is Caesar.
    It's hard to look up alea without getting the entire sentence alea iacta est throw back in your face. (Or jacta, the way we'd spell it today, since the I/J is a semivowel, not a vowel, and jacta has only two syllables.)

    For what it's worth, the Wikipedia article on that sentence notes that by Caesar's time, dice had been used in gaming for centuries. A game easily recognizable as an early version of backgammon was quite popular.
    The same article points out that both the Greeks and the Romans simply called dice "cubes." The ambiguity we perceive is only in the English translation, not in the original.
    Oh, every language has its share of homonyms. After all, there are only a finite number of phonemes to reuse when forming words.

    The Latin word for "war" is bella. (Hence the antebellum American South.) However, the adjective "beautiful" is bellus. When used with a feminine noun, it is inflected into bella. Romans joked that although wars are the ugliest things on earth, they called them "beautiful."
    Or maybe just a linguist.;) There's no ambiguity in the "original" Latin.

    I put "original" in sarcasm-quotes (they work better in speech, four wiggly fingers) because the sentence, alea jacta est, was not recorded verbatim by a scribe following Caesar through the palace with quill and papyrus. It was attributed to him posthumously by Suetonius. Suetonius was born 25 years after Caesar died, so the accuracy of the attribution must be questioned.
     
  8. ripleofdeath Registered Senior Member

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    oh contraire lesser mortal
    for one to be making such a bold error in judgment is judgment alone of that which one must not bare umbridge to.
    lest yee be waning the winds of truth to cast fair breeze upon your mind and soul.
    fear not for the time for change is the time for all abandon in an age where chance was the folly of kings and the prize was the anointment of gods grace to rule with abandon.
     
  9. Stryder Keeper of "good" ideas. Staff Member

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    Aye, you're right Fraggle on further investigation. Good thing I wasn't betting my house on that roll hey?
     
  10. mathman Valued Senior Member

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    “ Originally Posted by mathman
    Rome did not have an emperor then. ”

    "No, but it had a Caesar. The name "Caesar" has been appropriated in subsequent eras as a title for a national leader. With fairly faithful pronunciation and only spelling normalization it became Kaiser in German, and a few hundred years earlier, with predictable phonetic changes, it became Tsar in Russian (often spelled "czar" in English, for reasons I may never understand). In Yiddish, the tsars were simply called keyzers. Some scholars suggest that King Kjárr, in Norse mythology, is C"

    The use of Caesar as a title came later, starting AFTER Julius Caesar took over Rome, i.e. after he defeated Pompey and the Senate followers.
     
  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    I understand. Nonetheless it's only a bit of a stretch to call him "the first Caesar.";)

    I did say, after all:
     
  12. mathman Valued Senior Member

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    The only point I was trying to make in the original posting was that Rome did not have an emperor when Caesar crossed the Rubicon. It was a republic, where the senate was the principal center of power.
     

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