When University of Texas officials and a committee of former students were planning a granite memorial honoring the victims of UT Tower sniper Charles Whitman, they agonized to get the 17 names just the way family members preferred. There are some with middle names, others with middle initials, still others with neither. Spellings were double- and triple- and quadruple-checked.
But one thing fell through the cracks. A Latin word, “Interfectum,” that appears above the names is grammatically incorrect and negative in tone, according to three UT classics professors.
“Why they didn’t run one Latin word in the inscription past somebody in the classics department is sort of unfathomable to me,” said professor Lesley Dean-Jones, chairwoman of the department. “We are 100 yards from the memorial, and nobody bothered to ask us.”
The problem with the inscription, said Dean-Jones and her colleagues, is that “interfectum” refers to the killing of “a neuter singular thing,” when the context involves multiple men and women.
The granite memorial, which sits on the north side of the Tower by a turtle pond and live oaks, was dedicated in a moving ceremony Monday, the 50th anniversary of Whitman’s Aug. 1, 1966, rampage.
“I’m completely in sympathy with the committee’s thoughts on this, but the result came out wrong,” said Karl Galinsky, a classics professor. “The Latin form (on the memorial) is completely and coldly impersonal, meaning ‘that which has been killed’ or “some thing that has been killed.’ It clearly doesn’t do justice to the personal connection, the personal experience, the trauma that, as you could tell, so many people still feel.”
Erica Saenz, an associate vice president of diversity and community engagement for the university, said the Tower Memorial Committee members selected the term, and administrators wanted to honor their selection, “but we should have gone deeper than the peripheral confirmation of the ‘interfectum’ short meaning of ‘killed.’
“We certainly will work with our faculty and committee members to get to an appropriate agreement, and if we need to make a change we will,” Saenz said. “It’s stone. It can be sandblasted. It can be re-etched.”
Jim Bryce, co-chair of the committee, said, “This is a matter of concern that we wish to discuss to determine how it should be handled. If there is an appropriate mechanical way for it to be changed, I think it would be good to have it changed. But there are seven other people on the committee.”
Dean-Jones would like to see “interfectum” replaced with “interfecti,” the masculine plural form. It’s not necessary to use the feminine plural form, “interfectae,” she said.
Even if there was just one male in a group, the Romans would use the masculine form to refer to the group, Dean-Jones said. "So even though there are females among the victims, the correct way to refer to this group is with the masculine plural.”
She said it’s analogous to the use of “alumni” to refer to men and women, even though it is the masculine plural, with “alumnae” the feminine plural.
Galinsky, however, doesn’t like ‘interfecti’ because of its males-only connotation. “The Latin phrase most commonly used in such commemorations is ‘In memoriam.’ It works just fine and is not overly sentimental,” he said.
Tom Palaima, another UT classics professor, said he remains stunned that the error was allowed to occur.
“One wants to weep that at a supposed world-class university the powers that be do not have the instinct to get things right by consulting the Latin and Greek professors,” Palaima said. “This is atrocious — from the Latin ‘atrox.’”
But Bryce said the Latin glitch, given that it is correctable, doesn’t detract from the long-awaited tribute by UT to the fallen, the injured, the relatives, the friends and others touched by a day 50 years ago that still defies explanation.
“The university has been magnificent in handling this,” said Bryce, whose friend was wounded in the Tower shootings and survived. “That is more important than you can possibly imagine.”