Mind your language

Aleatory, fate and a rolling of the dice

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

‘What do they mean, “Guess”?’ asked my husband, staring suspiciously at a page of the Daily Mail that had been used as wrapping for a secondhand book he had bought through the post. He finds old newspapers more interesting than the morning’s fresh issue.

‘Guess the definition: Aleatory (c.1690),’ it said. ‘A) A concealed repository. B) Interrogatory, always asking questions or inquiring. C) Relating to luck (especially bad luck).’

The answer was C, though I don’t know why it said ‘bad luck’. The word, deployed a little annoyingly in arty talk, comes from the Latin alea, meaning ‘dice’, or ‘die’ (the singular).

Dice is a funny word too. In gaming contexts it is more frequently used as the singular form than the ‘correct’ die. And a plural of die would usually be spelt and pronounced like lies, ending with a -z sound. It came, remarkably, from the Latin datum. (The Spanish is dado.) The notion is that in late Latin times, datum was taken in the sense ‘that which is given or decreed’ — by fortune or a throw of the dice.

I think Caesar’s words when he crossed the Rubicon, Alea iacta est, are more familiar than the English word aleatory. When I wrote about that phrase here in 2009, I noted how Plutarch observed that Caesar pronounced the word in Greek, since he was quoting a favourite playwright, Menander.

Aleatory was given a fair wind in English by Thomas Urquhart in his version of Rabelais of 1693, when he translates l’heur de jugemens par sort as ‘Aleatory way of deciding Law Debates’: in other words the throwing of dice by Judge Bridlegoose to decide cases. Rabelais called the judge Bridoie, and the reference is to the so-called bridling of a goose or gosling by passing a feather sideways through the nares of the upper beak (which sounds unkind) so that it cannot escape through a hedge.

Aleatory doesn’t quite mean random. If you have two dice, there’s a one in six chance of throwing a total of seven, and a one in 18 chance of throwing three. As for composing literature or music, an aleatory approach needs all the help it can get from the muse or genius.

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