From Eric Temple Bell’s Men of Mathematics:

All this [definition of “function” and substituting numbers for variables] is familiar to anyone whose grammar-school education ended not more than thirty or forty years ago, but some may have forgotten what they did in arithmetic as children, just as others could not decline the Latin mensa to save their souls.

Mensa from Wikipedia:

Mensa, meaning table, can refer to the following:

  • Mensa International is an organization for persons with high IQs.
  • Mensa is a southern constellation.
  • Mensa is a term used by geologists to refer to an extraterrestrial mesa.
  • Mensa (restaurant) is a type of restaurant that specialises in cheap food for students.

I’m not sure whether any of these four meanings can fit the context. Maybe mensa was some kind of restaurant or school textbook?

I think the third meaning below may make sense:

  1. A table.
  2. A table of food; meal, course, feast.
  3. A sacrificial table, altar.
  4. vocative singular of mēnsa

closed as unclear what you're asking by FumbleFingers, TrevorD, tchrist, Matt E. Эллен, RegDwigнt Sep 4 '13 at 10:10

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  • It's General Reference. From the Wikipedia page for Mensa - mensa means "table" in Latin, as is symbolized in the organization's logo, and was chosen to demonstrate the round-table nature of the organization; the coming together of equals. – FumbleFingers Sep 3 '13 at 16:10
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not so sure that this definition "saves souls" – Zeta.Investigator Sep 3 '13 at 16:13
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    @Carlo_R. I don't think you're right: you're reading far too much into it. The plain reading is the one to go for. – Andrew Leach Sep 3 '13 at 16:38
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    You should really be asking "What does decline mean? Did you presume decline = 'politely refuse' here, as is much more likely? Rather, see decline: 4 [with object] (in the grammar of Latin, Greek, and certain other languages) state the forms of (a noun, pronoun, or adjective) corresponding to cases, number, and gender. (oxforddictionaries.com/definition/american_english/…) – Kris Sep 4 '13 at 10:15
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    The declension of mensa is traditionally the very first thing a Latin beginner would be taught. Bell is using it in that sense. It means table but that's irrelevant - it was the canonical example of a first declension noun. – user24964 Nov 14 '13 at 9:52

The reference "could not decline the Latin mensa to save their souls" is a reference to doing something which should be extremely easy. Mensa is a perfectly regular first-declension feminine noun, and declines in a set way:

Case        Major Use         Latin Example  English Equivalent  
----------- ----------------- -------------- ------------------
Nominative  Subject           mensa          table  
Accusative  Direct Object     mensam         table  
Genitive    Possessive        mensae         of the table  
Dative      Indirect Object   mensae         to/for the table  
Ablative    Means or Manner   mensa          by/with the table  
Vocative    Direct address    mensa          O table!  

However, there were some who could not do this even if their very lives depended on it.


"mensa" here is not English. It is literally the Latin word mensa, which happens to translate to "table", but the English translation is not relevant.

Rather, the word is used here as an example of a very simple Latin word that an adult -- whose learning as a schoolchild is forgotten -- might be totally unable to decline (in the grammatical sense of "to inflect"), even if the salvation of his soul depended on making such a declension.

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    Yes you're right but the point is that mensa was the canonical example of a first declension noun that a Latin beginner would memorise. It's the very first thing they would learn. – user24964 Nov 14 '13 at 9:51

I think the meaning of mensa is not relevant here. In Latin, one can decline a noun, by giving all its forms, one after the other. Bell is saying that even those who learned to do that back in school, may no longer remember it.

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