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Vocabulary in Dante's Inferno

Vocabulary Examples in Dante's Inferno:

Canto 1

🔒 2

"Have conn'd it o'er..."   (Canto 1)

In this case, to "con" is to study carefully. Dante has become very familiar with the Aeneid, which includes a long and detailed account of Aeneas' journey to the underworld to learn what the gods have in store for him and the Trojan race.

"Gone from the path direct..."   (Canto 1)

This is Dante's way of indicating that he has strayed from the "path direct," or, in more conventional religious terms, the right way.  Straying from the right way may be emblematic of estrangement from God, which is why he finds himself in the selva oscura, the dark wood.

"the dun midnight air..."   (Canto 6)

Dante and Virgil have been on their journey now for about nine hours. The air is "dun," meaning that the atmosphere is a dim, dull shade of gray-brown.

"Ciacco..."   (Canto 6)

There has been a good deal of scholarly debate over this name. Some argue that the reference is to the poet Ciacco dell'Anguillia, but there is no proof that this is so. Other scholars contend that the name "Ciacco," meaning "pig" in Florentine Italian, is a reference to gluttony, but it is unclear if this slang was in use during Dante's lifetime.

"My liege..."   (Canto 8)

"My liege" is an important honorific, signifying royalty. Dante applies it to Virgil because it expresses the intense loyalty Dante feels to his mentor and guide.

"The place is all thick spread with sepulchres..."   (Canto 9)

"Sepulchres" are tombs or burial-places. In ancient Roman cemeteries, the sepulchers and sarcophagi varied in height.

"Meanwhile the other, great of soul..."   (Canto 10)

"The other" refers to Farinata, who has been standing quietly listening to the exchange between Dante and Cavalcanti.  Farinata is called "great of soul (in Italian magnanimo, which literally translates to "magnanimous") because, when the Ghibellines destroyed the Guelphs in Florence and wanted to sack the city, Farinata tried to stop the destruction.

"the Wain..."   (Canto 11)

The "Wain" is another name for the "Big Dipper," a group of seven stars in the constellation Ursa Major (the big bear). The constellation looks like a ladle (hence "Big Dipper") or, to some, a wagon (hence "Wain").

"incontinence the least offends..."   (Canto 11)

"Incontinence"—the over-indulgence in things that are not inherently bad—is the least offensive sin, and those who are guilty of incontinence reside in Hell's upper levels.

"Wherefore in dotage..."   (Canto 11)

Virgil's reference to "dotage," or senility, may indicate Dante's age. He is thirty-five, an age which, during the Middle Ages, marks him as close to death. The average European person in the Middle Ages died at roughly thirty-one.

"simony..."   (Canto 11)

"Simony" was a serious problem in the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. Simony is the selling, usually by monks or other clergy, of indulgences and pardons to allow Christians to preemptively avoid Purgatory— a kind of 'get-out-of-jail-free' card.

"as under stove The viands..."   (Canto 14)

Comparing the glow of the marble to scraps of food—specifically "viands"—that glow while being cooked.

"The clown..."   (Canto 15)

Whenever the word "clown" is used in this translation, the word closest to Dante's original use is peasant or farmhand. Broadly speaking, the word refers to an agricultural worker or other rural person.

"that as pinions seem'd their nimble feet..."   (Canto 16)

In other words, they moved so fast that their feet seemed to have "pinions," or birds' wings.

"SIPA..."   (Canto 18)

In the Bolognese dialect, sipa means "yes." In this context, Dante is reinforcing the trend of Bolognese men being willing to prostitute their relatives by signifying, "yes, go right ahead." In modern Italy, the word sipa is synonymous with the city of Bologna.

"shrive..."   (Canto 19)

Shrive is an archaic word referring to the process by which a priest, pastor, or friar hears someone's confession and offers absolution for their sins. Shriving is generally associated with Roman Catholicism.

"Peschiera stands, to awe with front oppos'd The Bergamese and Brescian, whence the shore More slope each way descends..."   (Canto 20)

Peschiera—Italian for "fish pond"—is a fortress that stands against the Brescians and Bergamesques where the shore is most exposed by the lake.

"reins..."   (Canto 20)

Reins is an archaic word for the area of the heart and stomach, which was thought to be the area of the body in which passion and emotion originates.

"Alichino forth," with that he cried, "And Calcabrina, and Cagnazzo thou..."   (Canto 21)

The names of the Malebranche are as follows: Alichino means "Harlequin"; Calcabrina means "Frost Trampler"; Cagnazzo means "Nasty Dog"; Libicocco means "Stormbreath"; Barbariccia means "Curly Beard"; Draghignazzo means "Nasty Dragon"; Ciriatto means "Wild Swine"; Graffiacane means "Dog Scratcher"; Farfarello means "Goblin"; and Rubicante means "Red-faced Terror." While the names are inventions, it is possible that Dante crafted them out of perversions of the family names of corrupt Italian politicians.

"Stay, stay thee, Scarmiglione..."   (Canto 21)

Malacoda orders the demon Scarmiglione, whose name roughly translates to "Troublemaker," not to touch Dante.

"Ye of our bridge!" he cried, "keen-talon'd fiends..."   (Canto 21)

The condemned soul here is an unnamed politician who died on the day of this canto's setting. He is guilty of barratry: the buying and selling of public offices.

"on the pitch..."   (Canto 22)

Pitch in this sentence refers to the "lay of the land," how the terrain looks.

"In evolution moving, horse nor foot..."   (Canto 22)

The movement of infantry or cavalry on the field is known as an "evolution," part of an established pattern to get troops efficiently from one area to another and in the same order in which they started. In this context, Dante refers to his and Virgil's movements with the ten demons who are guiding them.

"To such a strange recorder I beheld,..."   (Canto 22)

The "strange recorder" is a cennamella, a variety of antiquated woodwind similar to an oboe.

"Those evil talons..."   (Canto 23)

In Dante's original, he invents the word Malebranche to describe the demons. The word literally translates to "evil talons," used here in Cary's version.

"heliotrope to charm them out of view..."   (Canto 24)

In the Middle Ages, the heliotrope was thought to be a small magical stone that had the power to cure snakebite and to render the wearer invincible.

"The village hind, whom fails his wintry store..."   (Canto 24)

The "village hind" here described is a farmer who is running short of provisions for the winter.

"When as the rime upon the earth puts on Her dazzling sister's image..."   (Canto 24)

It is winter, most likely January. It is the time when hoarfrost—frozen dew that looks like a light coating of snow-—imitates snow on the ground, "her dazzling sister's image."

"Where is the caitiff..."   (Canto 25)

Even the Centaur, a creature known for violence and hostility, cries out for Vanni Fucci because he wishes to punish Vanni himself. "Caitiff" means "lowlife" or "scum of the earth."

"Caieta, ..."   (Canto 26)

v"Caieta" is often translated to "Gaeta." This is a town on Italy's southern Coast. Aeneas named the town after his nurse, who died there. The event is described in Book VII of the Aenied.

"Prato..."   (Canto 26)

There is some controversy over the identity of "Prato." Some scholars claim that that "Prato" is Cardinal Niccolo da Prato, who unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile Prato's rival factions in 1304. But other scholars argue that the reference is to Prato itself, a Tuscan city which expelled the Black Guelphs in 1309. 

"green talons..."   (Canto 27)

The "green talons" mentioned here (in some translations, "green paws") form the emblem of the coat-of-arms of the Ordelaffi family. The Ordelaffis were despots who ruled Forli—a city southwest of Ravenna—at the end of the 13th century.

"Swoln dropsy..."   (Canto 30)

"Swoln dropsy" refers to what we know as edema, swelling of the body and limbs. The food and water one takes in simply causes more swelling.

"who five ells complete Without the head..."   (Canto 31)

An "ell" is an English measure equal to 45 inches. Antaeus, without considering his head, stands above the rim of the pit by almost 19 feet.

"baldrick..."   (Canto 31)

A baldric is a belt worn across the chest to support a weapon, typically a sword, or an instrument, typically a bugle.

"three Friezelanders Had striv'n in vain to reach but to his hair..."   (Canto 31)

"Friezelanders" refers to people from Frisia, a nation in the Middle Ages that roughly corresponds to modern-day Netherlands.

"Had Tabernich or Pietrapana fall'n,..."   (Canto 32)

"Tabernich," now called Monte Tambura, and "Pietrapana," now called Pania della Croce, are the two highest peaks in the Apuan Alps, a mountain range in northern Tuscany.

"Cocytus..."   (Canto 33)

Cocytus is the last river in the underworld. It is entirely frozen over. In Greek, cocytus means "to lament."

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