November 22, 2006

Calvior cucurbita

In English: Balder than a pumpkin.

I thought a saying about a pumpkin would be an appropriate choice as the Thanksgiving feast day is upon us, with attendant pumpkin pie.

A pumpkin is, indeed, remarkably bald. In English, the standard comparison for baldness seems to be "bald as a coot," but I don't really like that comparison as much: according to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, coots have a prominent bald patch, but since I've never seen a coot, much less a coot up close, the comparison doesn't work for me (although there is a nice picture of a coot here, showing the bald patch).

The Latin phrase is much more effective, I think - balder than a pumpkin: that must be very bald indeed! The Roman author Apuleius used the phrase in his Metamorphoses in the part devoted to the story of Cupid and Psyche, referring to an old man who was balder than a pumpkin.

The Latin word calvus, meaning "bald," is itself a very interesting word, which gives us the English "Calvary." Yes, for all of you who as children got the words "Cavalry" and "cavalry" mixed up, here's the etymological explanation that could have saved you.

The English word "cavalry" derives ultimately from the Latin caballus, "horse," with the -b- changing to a -v- over time. So the cavalry (*cabal-ry*) is composed of soldiers on caballi, on horses.

The English word "Calvary" derives from the Latin calvaria, "skull," which is in turn derived from calvus, "bald." Indeed, if there is anything balder than a pumpkin, it would indeed be a human skull! So, the place where Jesus was crucified is called Calvaria in the Latin translation of the Bible, imitating the Aramaic name, Golgotha, which meant "skull." In English, we took over the word "Calvary," but I would guess that most people do not realize that this is from the Latin word for "skull," itself based on the word for "bald," calvus. Once you learn this, it's easy to keep straight the English words "cavalry" and Calvary. If you are interested in learning more about the legends associated with the Calvary "skull," you can find a good discussion at the Catholic Encyclopedia online, including the fascinating legend that Golgotha was so named because the skull of Adam had been deposited there.

Meanwhile, with happy pumpkin thoughts for Thanksgiving, here is today's proverb read out loud:

608. Calvior cucurbita.

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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