December 05, 2006

Perit panis quo peregrinum canem alis

In English: The bread is lost by which you feed a stray dog.

Yesterday's proverb was a very lofty and moral proverb that started with the word perit. I thought I would choose another proverb today starting with perit, but one which takes a much more utilitarian, even ruthless, point of view, rather than the high-minded idealism of yesterday's saying. The world of Latin proverbs is rich in both types of wisdom, as taught in the school of virtue, but also in the school of hard knocks.

The message of today's saying is that it is a waste of bread if you feed it to a stray dog who is likely to wander off without the least notice. You can take that literally, if you want - if there's not much bread to go around and you squander it on a dog who is going to wander off, then you have indeed wasted your bread. You either need to not feed that stray dog, or else you need to put a collar on him and keep him. (For a brilliant Aesop's fable about whether it's worth it or not for the dog to wear that collar, see the story of The Dog and The Wolf.)

As often with proverbs, there is also a message here that goes beyond the simple question or whether or not to feed a stray dog. In business terms, it means not to lay out money if you are not going to get a return on your investment. In the world of romance, it suggests that you do not to treat someone to dinner unless you think there's something serious about to develop. And so on... the metaphorical applications are endless, all very Realpolitik, very Machiavellian.

The word peregrinus here had a very practical meaning in Latin. It was someone foreign, someone who came from abroad, literally from across (per) the field (ager), an outsider, a stranger. Over time, however, the word came to take on a much more specific meaning in later Christian Latin culture. The peregrinus was the person who had left their home to go elsewhere on a pilgrimage, and the English word "pilgrim" ultimately derives from the Latin peregrinus, via the late Latin form pelegrinus, which yielded an Anglo-Norman word "pilegrine," and finally "pilgrim".

Today's proverb, of course, advocates a decidedly un-Christian answer to the question of whether or not to feed that pilgrim dog!

Here is today's proverb read out loud (I didn't say anything about alliteration in my comments today but, just like yesterday's proverb, you will hear some great alliteration in this one):

2241. Perit panis quo peregrinum canem alis.

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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