October 10, 2006

Canes timidi vehementius latrant quam mordent

In English: Timid dogs bark more fiercely than they bite.

This is a nice Latin version of "his bark's worse than his bite" (a proverb that even rated inclusion in the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy). What I like is that the Latin version adds the detail that it is the scared dogs that act this way.

The Latin saying can be found in Curtius's History of Alexander the Great, Book VII. Curtius pairs it with another very nice proverb: altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi, "the deepest waters glide by with the least sound." Applied to dogs this would warn us that the baddest dogs are not the ones barking, but the ones staring right at us, not making a sound!

I decided to post this as a follow-up commentary on the North Korea episode which is dominating the news still today. Of the various news shows I heard today, it was only the BBC News that featured an interview which raised the issue of what it means for the western nations "in the club" to be so reticent about their own nuclear weapons arsenals while raising a ruckus about North Korea. You can hear an example of that reticence right there in the BBC interview, with the reporter pushing hard with questions while Britain's ambassador to the U.N. deftly does not engage. Apparently North Korea pulled out of the non-proliferation talks several years ago. So, as a result, they have not signed any agreement to not proliferate, making it unclear on what grounds the U.N. could sanction them. Although they will no doubt be sanctioned; that definitely seemed to be the consensus today.

I was wondering, though, if this proverb might not tell us a lot of what we need to know. Is there a lot of barking going on here? Is there reason to think North Korea is scared? That sure seems likely to me. If I were North Korea, I'd be scared. And as the proverb tells us: the scared dogs are going to bark!

So here is today's proverb read out loud (but no barking, I promise!):

1557. Canes timidi vehementius latrant quam mordent.

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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