January 08, 2007

Dum loquor, hora fugit

In English: As I am speaking, time is escaping.

This is another of the many Latin sayings that can be classified under the "time flies" heading. I thought it would be a good saying for today, since my winter break is over today - and it seems to have flown by in just an instant.

What I really like about this saying is the contrast between how we construct a reality by speaking, asserting ourselves and our existence in the world by means of speech. But even as we do that, time - silently - slips away. There is an enormous contrast here between our noisy existence and the silence of time. Precisely because it is silent, time is able to "slip away" (Latin fugit), unnoticed. If time were as noisy as we are, we might be able to catch hold of it and stop its escape. But time is silent, and makes its escape before we even notice.

The saying comes from a poem by Ovid, in Book I of his Amores. The setting is a typical one for elegiac love poetry: the poet needs to send a secret message to his lover, conveyed by her maid. He is giving the maid instructions about when and where to deliver the message:

Dum loquor, hora fugit. vacuae bene redde tabellas,
verum continuo fac tamen illa legat.

As I am speaking, time is escaping. Give the message to her when she is completely unoccupied, and make sure that she reads it immediately.

It has been Ovid's fate as a poet that his verses are often picked apart, with bits and pieces passing completely out of their original context into the world of Latin sayings and proverbs. In this elegiac love poem, the poet simply remarks to the maid that she better hurry up - in fact, they are losing time as he gives her the instructions. Yet when that remark - dum loquor, hora fugit - is removed from this narrative context, it is able to function perfectly well as a handy little Latin saying, reminding us of mortality and the passing of time, with no further trace whatsoever of the adventures of Ovid, his lover, and her maid.

So, with the clock silently ticking, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3029. Dum loquor, hora fugit.

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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