November 01, 2006

Suus est mos cuique genti

In English: There is for each nation its own custom.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb about how each person loves his own country. This proverb explores the diversity of nations from a different angle: each nation has its own custom.

This is something we are all fully aware of, and there is probably an important item in the news every day which, in some way, relates back to the variety of customs among the different peoples of the world. For example, there has been a torrent of discussion in the news recently about the custom of veiling in different Muslim nations. (Here's a nice graphic from the BBC about different types of veils in the Muslim world.)

The key word in this proverb, mos, is one of my favorite Latin words. In the singular, as used here, it means "custom" or "practice" or even "law." This is where we get the English word "moral," since the stem of the Latin word is actually mor, although the "r" in the stem is not visible in the nominative singular form.

Now in the plural, mores means something quite different. It is the Roman word for "character" or "personality." In other words, a person's character is the whole collection of the many customs and habits, the assembly of characteristic behaviors (plural) that makes that person who they are. I think that is an ingenious way to to express the plurality of traits which is embodied in any person.

But wait: things get even better. There is another Latin word morosus, meaning "full of mores" (the Latin suffix -osus means "full of"). Just as with the corresponding English word "morose," the Latin word morosus means "grumpy, crabby, sullen, gloomy."

Isn't that great? Everyone has a personality composed of certain traits and behaviors, but if someone has too much personality, too much eccentricity and too many peculiar habits, then they become awfully hard to get along with!

So think about the lovely Latin word mos and its many meanings as you list to today's proverb read out loud:

931. Suus est mos cuique genti.

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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