What That Handmaid’s Tale Phrase Actually Means

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
The fourth episode of The Handmaid's Tale dropped on Hulu today, and I can't stop talking about it. That is mostly thanks to the finale line of the installment: "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches." It's even better when you find out what it means.
"Nolite te bastardes carborundorum" is both the title of the most recent Handmaid's Tale episode and the phrase Offred finds carved into her closet, a message left by the previous handmaid.
In the episode, she goes out on a limb and asks Waterford what it means. He explains that it's a joke Latin phrase and loosely translates to "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Turns out, that's exactly how Margaret Atwood, the author of the original book, came up with it.
Advertisement
“I’ll tell you the weird thing about it,” she told Time magazine this spring. “It was a joke in our Latin classes. So this thing from my childhood is permanently on people’s bodies.” Atwood is referring to how people have gotten the phrase tattooed on them after it gained popularity.
Those who aren't familiar with Latin might be failing to see the "joke" in all this, but it's really just that the phrase doesn't make sense.
Michael Fontaine, a classics professor from Cornell University, told Vanity Fair that it “looks like someone tried to put the English into Google Translate for Latin.”
Both "bastardes" and "carborundorum" aren't actually Latin phrases. As it turns out, “carborundorum” is an English word for a product used as an abrasive, hence the fake translation to "grind you down."
Same goes for "bastardes." The actual translation for bastard in Latin would be "spurius" or "nothos" — but those don't have quite the same kick, don't you think?
“My guess is that c. 1890-1900, some American people thought it would be funny to pretend like ‘carborundum’ was actually a Latin word meaning ‘needing to be worn down’ or (making allowances for ignorance, which is surely part of it) ‘to wear down,'" Fontaine concluded. "Whatever it was, it’s not in use any more, so we’ve lost all memory of it. Nowadays it just looks like a strange, broken Latin word to us."
Fun fact: A version of the phrase ("Illegitimi non carborundum," a.k.a. "Don't let the illegitimate grind you down" ) appears on a plaque on John Boehner's desk. The Dictionary of American Slang attributes its first use to 1939, and legend has it that British soldiers used it as a rallying cry during World War II.
Whatever it means, nothing is going to stop me from screaming "Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches!!!" whenever a man takes up too much room on the subway.
Advertisement