> The Latin insults between Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo in Tombstone reveal the escalating animosity between the two gunslingers. > The use of Latin phrases they would have learned as schoolboys adds complexity to their relationship as adversaries and makes their interaction more entertaining. > Latin was commonly spoken in the Old West as part of a person's education, and reciting it demonstrated sophistication and culture.
The volley of Latin insults exchanged between Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) is one of the best scenes in Tombstone, and the translation of the phrases makes it even better. Tombstone is based on historical events that occurred in the titular town in Arizona in the 1880s, such as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral between Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and best friend Doc Holliday against Johnny Ringo and his fellow outlaws, but one of the most interesting incidents is a verbal altercation between a very drunk (and dying) Holliday and an impetuous Ringo that allegedly took place in the saloon Wyatt Earp was dealing cards.
When the two meet for the first time they exchange snide remarks about their respective qualities as men that quickly turn personal, but Ringo surprises Doc by being able to keep up with him intellectually and proving he's an educated man. Without subtitles, it's difficult to know the meaning behind Doc Holliday's lines or what these phrases mean translated into English, but each one plays an integral part in understanding the escalating animosity between these two famous gunslingers. The literal meaning of the Latin words helps to uncover the complexities of their relationship as adversaries while the schoolboy phrases themselves make a typical barroom interaction more entertaining the longer it goes on.
"In Vino Veritas." - Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday taking a shot in Tombstone
When Doc declares that he should "hate" Johnny Ringo because he reminds him too much of himself, Wyatt Earp tries to assuage the younger gunsel by explaining that Doc's drunk and not in command of his faculties. Doc retorts, "In vino veritas," which translates to, "In wine there is truth" suggesting that in fact, being drunk actually makes him tell the truth. This is a classical Latin phrase, much like a toast, but it's not taken in gest, and Johnny Ringo jumps at the chance to ridicule his opponent for the fact he's as well-known for the amount of alcohol he consumes as the men he's killed with his pistol.
"Age Quod Agis." - Johnny Ringo
Ringo's response to Doc is, "Age quod agis," which roughly translates to, "Do what you do," and implies that if Wyatt has tried to blame Doc's scattered brain on drunkenness, then Doc should stick to what he knows best. Doc is taking a sip from his tin cup at this time, but as soon as the Latin words register, he understands that Ringo might be a more formidable adversary than he initially thought. Doc knows that it's dangerous to underestimate him, but if anything, Ringo is underestimating Doc in this instance by believing that he's truly incapable of handling himself in a gunfight given how much he's had to drink.
"Credat Judaeus Apella, Non Ego." - Doc Holliday
The Earp brothers exchange worried glances, but Doc has regained his composure after Ringo's introductory Latin, confidently retorting, "Credat Judaeus apella, non ego," which means, "Let the Jew Apella believe it; not I." This is a direct quote from an ancient poem by Horace that suggests Ringo should go to tell someone who cares. By dismissing Ringo's apparent need to impress him, making it clear that he's received the better education, and proving he's more familiar with the language, this response reveals what a clever wordsmith Doc is and what a great cowboy character even under the influence of whiskey and exhibiting all the symptoms of late stage tuberculosis.
"Eventus Stultorum Magister." - Johnny Ringo
Curly Bill and Johnny Ringo in Tombstone
Ringo doesn't miss a beat when Doc attempts to eviscerate him in front of the gathered crowd, responding with, "Eventus stultorum magister, which translates to, "Experience is the teacher of fools," and implies that fools like Doc need to learn through experience, and that a more knowledgeable pro like Ringo will be the one to teach him a lesson in gunfighting. This is a clever comeback from Ringo because it both highlights that he's had considerably more education than Doc has given him credit for, and implies that Doc is still a student who must learn from Ringo, who has placed himself in the position of power as an instructor.
Not to be outdone, Doc calmly ends their Latin duel with, "In pace requiescat," which roughly translated means, "Rest in peace." Ringo responds by drawing his pistol and twirling it in an intricate series of quick draw patterns which has everyone cheering, ignoring the fact that Doc is studying his speed and draw. Doc responds by using the tin cup he's been drinking out of to replicate every single one of Ringo's movements, and Ringo realizes too late that he's given his surprise away to the one person he shouldn't, and that even drunk and dying of tuberculosis, Doc's still the better gunfighter that will be able to kill him.
How Frequently Latin Was Spoken In The Old West
Doc Holliday approaches Johnny Ringo in Tombstone
In the 19th century, Latin was a common part of a young person's education and was found throughout the Old West, though perhaps not used as casually in conversation as the scene between Doc and Ringo would suggest. Coming from a more affluent background Doc received a higher education than Ringo and also spoke French and Greek along with Latin, while Ringo likely only received basic education as a youngster in Missouri. However, they both would have had access to the same collection of Latin proverbs, poems, and anecdotes in their book stacks just as they would their bibles.
Unlike today, reciting Latin was a way to be perceived as sophisticated and cultured even if circumstances suggested an otherwise paltry background, and Ringo was certainly trying to impress Doc with his erudite use of the language. The fact that Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo jeered each other with quotes they would have memorized as young school boys is the equivalent of arguing strictly using movie quotes or song titles. The fight was about so much more than what was being said to deliver it, but the verses they used conveyed the message that they wanted to send to each other.
The next time they meet, Johnny is the one who's drunk, and he handles their exchange considerably differently than Doc did, showcasing that much of what Doc said was true during their first encounter in the saloon because Ringo is really all talk. Their final confrontation in Tombstone as sober men signifies that the schoolyard games are over, and it's time to test the veracity and conviction of their earlier insults. Though it features some of Doc Holliday's best one-liners, it's their pistols that do the talking for them, and Doc proves that, unlike Ringo, he knew that if both men played for blood, he had the skill to back up his words.
When I was in Tombstone in the late 70s, I was in the Crystal Palace Saloon for a couple of beers. One cowboy ran for the door. Another was hot on his heels. They got outside and their hats flew up in the air. The Twon Marshals grabbed them and threw them out in the street and said, "Git home."
I can recall the old Latin masses in Chicago back in the 60s. I learned to play the organ and was playing two masses every Sunday in the Chapel for two masses for $5 each Sunday. One time they had a wedding but no organist. I got to play the pipe organ for that wedding, and it paid $50. I haven't touched a keyboard since then.