November 13, 2006

Stat lapis et nomen tantum, vestigia nulla

In English: There stands only a stone and a name, no traces at all.

Since yesterday's Latin saying came from a tombstone, I thought that would be a good reason for today's proverb, which also comes from a Roman tombstone. This saying provides a very sad commentary on the effort of putting up a tombstone, however, reminding us that there is only a stone and a name, but no trace at all of the person.

The Latin word vestigium is precisely where we get our English word "vestige." That English word suits the context of this saying quite well. After a person is dead and gone, there is no longer any vestige of that person here among the living.

Yet it is also worth keeping in mind the literal, physical meaning of the Latin word vestigium, which is "footprint." To me, that makes the loss signaled by the epitaph even more touching. The person is gone, so they are not walking the world together with us - but there is not even a footprint left behind, not even a trace of their passage through this life left to remind us of just who that person was. The person has passed on and even the footprints they could have left behind have also been wiped away in time.

It's an eerie feeling to walk through a cemetery and to see the stones and the names, but no other traces of the human lives memorialized there. There's a cemetery quite near where I live, and it is a strange feeling to drive by it every day on my way home. It's a memento mori, another very profound Latin phrase, which means: "remember (that you are going) to die." Yet there is also something salutary about that thought. Unlike the folks who have passed on, memorialized by unmoving stones in the ground, leaving not so much as a footprint, you are still walking the path of life, one footstep at a time. So: enjoy those footsteps and the path your are walking upon!

Here is today's proverb read out loud:

1180. Stat lapis et nomen tantum, vestigia nulla.

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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