September 23, 2006

Celerius quam asparagi coquuntur.

In English: Faster than asparagus is cooked.

I thought I would do this saying in honor of the asparagus we will be eating for dinner tonight! As anyone knows who has watched the genius mini-series I, Claudius, this saying about asparagus was a favorite of the Emperor Augustus. That's what the historian Suetonius tells us, at least.

The word "asparagus" is a Latin word which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks. We have taken over this Latin word directly into English, as you can guess from the -us ending. In Latin, however, you find the word used in the plural (as in this proverb), whereas in English we treat asparagus as a collective noun, without a plural form. I took a look in the Oxford English Dictionary, which informs me that the more common spelling in the 17th and 18th centuries was "sparrow grass," and it was only in the 19th century that literary usage revived the Latin spelling, "asparagus," so that the use of "sparrow grass" gradually became less and less common.

As sayings go, this is definitely a good one: asparagus cooks very quickly indeed! So if you are able to get something done faster than asparagus gets cooked, that means you've got just a couple of minutes to get the job done!

If you have never eaten fresh asparagus, you have missed out on one of the world's great vegetables. Here's a webpage with cooking tips for asparagus - there are many ways to cook asparagus and, of course, all of them are speedy!

Here is today's proverb read out loud: pretend you are the Emperor Augustus himself as you say it!

3036. Celerius quam asparagi coquuntur.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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Katie Alt said...

This is a particularly interesting quote. It's the first instance I've heard in which an old English translation sort of pre-dates the Latin.


Laura Gibbs said...

We had asparagus just the other night (we eat a lot of asparagus), and I've started calling it "sparrow grass" just for fun!

If you haven't seen the I Claudius show, I really recommend it - I can just hear Brian Blessed (who plays Augustus) shouting about asparagus! They get a lot of mileage out of this proverb in that show! :-)