February 26, 2007

Nocumentum documentum

In English: A loss, a lesson.

This is one of my favorite Latin sayings, although it's almost impossible to translation into English, since so much depends on the play on words. I've tried to capture something of that play on words by saying "a loss, a lesson." The literal meaning of the Latin would be something like "a harm is an example."

As you can see, the two words nocumentum and documentum are formed in the same way. The word nocumentum is from the verb nocere, "to hurt, do harm," while the word documentum is from the verb docere, "to teach." The idea, of course, is that when somebody (preferably somebody else!) suffers some kind of hurt or harm, this can teach you to avoid falling victim to the same kind of hurt or harm.

Of course, we have lost this sense of documentum meaning something that teaches or informs. Documents are now just so much paper! But the root of the word shows that the original Latin meaning was not a piece of paper, but rather a proof, an example, an instructive demonstration of some principle of idea - something that teaches you something, docet.

Take yesterday's proverb, for example, which was about the stag who rushes into the arrow, running straight into his own destruction. This is a big nocumentum for the stag, but it can be a good lesson, documentum, for you, the beneficiary of the stag's terrible mistake!

This always reminds me of one of the great "demotivators" from despair.com. The image shows a sinking ship, with the motto: "Mistakes: It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others."

So, hoping that none of us are serving as a warning to others at this particular moment, here is today's proverb read out loud:

54. Nocumentum documentum.

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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