March 05, 2007

Fames artium magistra

In English: Hunger is the teacher of skills.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb about necessitas. The key term in today's proverb is much more concrete that "necessity." This time we are talking about something very specific and very pointed: fames, "hunger." Like necessitas, the word fames is a feminine noun, which is how hunger gets to be a "school-mistress," magistra.

How does hunger get to be a teacher of skills? It happens when you absolutely must get something to eat, to feed yourself, or to feed your family. So if you are stuck out in the woods, you might quickly learn to tell edible berries from inedible ones, or how to hunt or how to fish. If you are suddenly out of work without money to buy your next meal, you might gain new skills in washing dishes or panhandling or whatever it takes to put some food on the table.

It's worth saying something about the Latin word fames, "hunger," a third-declension noun that is so easy to confuse with the first-declension noun fama, "fame, rumor, reputation." We get the English word "famine" from Latin fames, while we owe the words "fame" and "famous" to Latin fama.

The second part of this saying, artium magistra, also deserves some comment. This is the same phrase which is usually abbreviated M.A. in English, standing for "Master of Arts," magister artium. Of course, if you're a woman, then you technically are a magistra artium, a mistress - not a master - of the arts.

So, hoping you are not being taught by hunger tonight, here is today's proverb read out loud:

266. Fames artium magistra.

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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