November 12, 2006

Poma aut matura cadunt aut immatura leguntur

In English: Fruits either fall when they are ripe or are gathered before they're ripe.

I thought this would be a good proverb to add to the recent series of proverbs that invoked metaphors from nature in order to describe the transitoriness of human life. This proverb is more like a riddle, though, because it does not state the comparison outright, as in a typical simile: "such and such is like such and such..." With this proverb, you have to do a bit of thinking on your own.

In fact, if you are not used to "proverbial tihnking" this proverb may seem a little weird. It seems to say something entirely obvious: so the ripe fruits fall down and if the fruit isn't ripe, it has to be plucked from the tree. And your point is...?

Well, this proverb gets it point from the context in which it is used. And where does this Latin proverb come from? It is from the inscription on a tomb. So that sets up the comparison: just as the fruits of nature are born, grow into maturity, and are then gone in their season, so too with human life. When someone's life is ripe or mature, they are ready to fall from the tree of life. Yet sometimes people die young, immature, like the fruit described in the proverb. These fruits too are gathered up, before they are ready to fall. Why people have to die young is a mystery, often a sad or even tragic one. This proverb gives us a natural comparison so that we can try to "see" what is happening, and by means of that acquire some insight.

There is a similar metaphor at work in a simile that we are all familiar with already: Death as the "Grim Reaper," harvesting human souls with a scythe.

The Latin word pomum was used to refer to fruits of all kinds, and we can see the root in the English word "pomegranate" which is from the Latin pomum granatum, the "seeded fruit," a very fair description of the a pomegranate! And yes, that is where the word "grenade" comes from. Apparently grenades have been around since the 16th century (!), when soldiers started using small hand-sized fragmenting bombs that reminded people of pomegranates.

From Latin pomum we also get the English word "pommel" (familiar to anybody who has been horseback riding!) via the Latin pomellum, "little fruit." The English "pommel" refers to the rounded knob on a saddle or on a sword. And yes, when someone is "pommeled" it means they are being beaten with a pommel (not with a little piece of fruit!).

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3037. Poma aut matura cadunt aut immatura leguntur.

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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