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All right, so my bugbear for the week has been anointment.  In particular, unguere (or ungere), a Latin word meaning “to anoint”.

My problem is that “anoint” is one of those 1913ese words that doesn’t correspond well to anything we talk about today.

In its historical or ceremonial context—where you might anoint someone king, say—the word is fine enough, though probably not something that would come up in daily conversation.

But this is a specialized use of a word which has at base a rather wider meaning.  It doesn’t do for commonplace usage, as in a passage I was working on out of Cicero, Ad Atticum 13.52:

Post horam viii in balneum. […] Unctus est, accubuit.

After two o’clock he went to the bath. […] He was *anointed and lay down for dinner.

Now, besides ‘anoint’ a 19th-century dictionary like Lewis & Short gives for unguere other words like smear or besmear (“with any fat substance”). A more modern dictionary like Traupman’s gives to oil, grease.  All these synonyms work fine for anointing inanimate objects, but smearing implies sloppy application (which I wouldn’t say applies) and oiling or greasing someone up usually suggests a whole other category of activity.

So I went looking for alternatives.  Apparently there’s some debate as to whether anointing, being an application of oil applied by rubbing, might correspond to massage; from what I can make out, though, massage is more about the rubbing (frictio), while anointment is more about the oiling (unctio), and both were treated separately, even if it’s difficult to do either without much of the other.

So the method of anointment wasn’t helpful in finding a translation; I looked next to the purpose.  Anointment with oil seems to have been done to improve the quality or health of the skin.  But while the image of someone applying moisturizer or similar lotions is a familiar one, I don’t think it comes with a convenient verb to express the action.

In the end I went with “he was rubbed down with oil”, a nasty circumlocution.  If you can find me a better way to say it, I’d love to hear your comments.

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