“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” is not just a tattoo you’ve seen on your cool friend’s wrist. It’s three things at once: It’s one of Margaret Atwood’s most famous lines, it’s a feminist rallying cry, and it’s utter gibberish.
As the fourth episode of Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals, the famous phrase is grammatically incorrect Latin, which roughly translates to “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Elizabeth Moss’s character Offred learns that her predecessor — who carved the phrase into the molding of her bedroom — killed herself.
In the dystopian world of Gilead, any woman who is fertile is resigned to life as a Handmaid. She’s not allowed to read, work, own property, or go anywhere unsupervised, and she must partake in ritualistic rape once a month, known as “The Ceremony”. In other words, she’s constantly ground down by the bastards who run this theocratic, brutally misogynistic regime.
As Margaret Atwood explained in an interview with Time, even she didn’t invent the phrase — she learned it in Latin class when she was in school over fifty years ago. “It was a joke in our Latin classes. So this thing from my childhood is permanently on people’s bodies,” she said, referring to its popularity in tattoos thanks to the story’s real-world resonance.
Within the world of the show, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” is an act of defiance. Because Handmaids aren’t allow to read, and female friendships are not encouraged, Offred’s predecessor writing this message for her to find is a rebellion that counters the ideals of their rigid society.
In the very first episode, a panicked Handmaid promises “I didn’t read it, I swear!” after letting a piece of information slip, fearful her peers will report her. Offred takes months to befriend her walking partner Offglen, because each lives in fear the other is a true believer who will report them if they dare speak candidly. Fear is the tool of Gilead’s trade, and it grinds down the potential for a Handmaid to forge genuine bonds with anyone around her. In the third episode, Offred is punished by the mere suggestion of her friendship with Offglen. The written message from her predecessor is both a refusal to comply and an invisible hand of friendship.
The fact that the woman is dead and the message is ultimately gibberish only makes it more impactful. It highlights how even if it’s meager, or in the past, or not technically accurate, a beacon of light in a world of darkness always means something — even if it’s nonsense to someone else.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing on Wednesdays on Hulu.