English has picked up more than a few Latin phrases over the years. And a long-overlooked but no less intriguing one popped up on HH today.
A mutato nomine, then, is a story or anecdote that can be reused or reapplied, so long as all the names of everyone and everything involved are altered.
As we mentioned over on Twitter, that term means “the name being changed” in Latin. Mutato, unsurprisingly, comes from the same root as words like mutation, permute, and mutable—namely the Latin verb mutare, “to change.” It’s also taken from the same root as another Latin expression, mutatis mutandis (literally, “things having been changed that have to be changed”), used chiefly in legal contexts to refer to the alterations made when comparing one situation or case to another.
Nomine, equally unsurprisingly, comes from the same root as words like nominate and denomination—namely the Latin verb nominare, meaning “to call by name.” Sling those two together, and you end up with mutatis nomine, an expression that fell into use in English in the early 1600s. Its actual history, however, stretches a lot further back than that.
Long before it established itself as an expression in its own right, mutatis nomine was a line taken from the first book of the Roman poet Horace’s Satires, written sometime in the late first century BC. The scene in question concerns a conversation between The Poet and The Miser, in which the two men are discussing the purpose of accumulating great wealth.
In their argument, The Poet happens to draw a parallel between a wealthy man who does nothing but stare at his wealth and not put it to good use, and Tantalus, the character from ancient mythology who was punished in the Underworld by having a ready supply of food and water drawn away from him as he reached for it. The Miser, in reply to The Poet’s comparison, laughs scoffingly, to which the Poet replies, “Quid rides? Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur”—or, “Why do you laugh? With the name changed, the story applies to you.”
It’s from here that mutato nomine (or, in some instances, the full line mutato nomine de te fabula narratur) fell into use in English—as too, oddly, did the tag Quid rides? (“Why do you laugh?”), which is likewise sometimes used in English as a surprised reply to someone’s unexpected laughter.