Pecunia non olet

I’ve been rereading That Hideous Strength. I’m going through it slowly this time, paying attention to details I glossed over before.

For example, early in the book we’re told that the head of a college has the nickname N.O.

N.O., which stood for Non-Olet, was the nickname of Charles Place, the warden of Bracton.

The first time I read the novel I zoomed past this tidbit. “Must be some Latin thing.” This time I looked it up.

It is indeed a Latin thing. It’s a reference to “Pecunia non olet” which translates as “Money doesn’t stink.” The idea is that money is money, and it doesn’t matter if it comes from a distasteful source.

The phrase goes back to the tax paid by those who bought the contents of public urinals as a source of ammonia. When Emperor Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the urine tax, the emperor held up a gold coin and said “Pecunia non olet.”

We’re told that the warden was “an elderly civil servant,” not an academic, and that his biggest accomplishment was that he had written “a monumental report on National Sanitation.”

So the nickname N.O. works on several levels. It implies that he’s willing to take money wherever he can get it, and it’s an allusion to the fact that he’s more qualified to be a sanitation engineer than a college president. I suppose it also implies that he’s inclined to say “no” to everything except money.

More posts on Latin phrases

5 thoughts on “Pecunia non olet

  1. How do you feel about the other two books in the trilogy? I read it long ago, but remember loving Out of the Silent Planet, liking That Hideous Strength a lot, and not being able to finish Perelandra (I think I tried twice) –finding it too Christian and too boring.

  2. The first time I read the books, I thought Perelandra was the best by far. My opinion of the other two books has gone up the second time through, but I still think Perelandra was the best.

  3. Just ordered the trilogy. Thanks!

    Half a century ago I was a fad-averse teenager. When asked “Have you read Lord of the Rings?” I took great pleasure in shutting down that enthusiasm with a snide “No, and I have no plans to.” Same for this trilogy. Allowed me to stand out as different without actually having to do anything.

    Thanks for reminding me I’m not that kid any more.

    Probably means I can also read Harry Potter. Clearly this went on a bit past childhood.

    Oddly enough for a child of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, the same applied to drugs. Just being socially contrary, with no other reason to avoid them. Hmmmm…..

  4. Agreed that _Perelandra_ was the best* of the three, by a lot. I did not care for THS at all when I first read it; I should try it again some day.

    *For me, it had the best dialogue, the most credible characterization of evil, and the most convincing theology of the three.

  5. Ha. Just found this post as I was doing the same thing – re-reading THS (for about the 6th time) and coming across the phrase non-olet and thinking I have read this many times – I should look it up.
    For me THS is the best by far of the trilogy – mainly because I identify (unfortunately) with many of the faults and frailties of Mark Studdock.
    Anyway thanks for posting the explanation!

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