March 12, 2007

Multitudo canum, mors leporis

In English: Plenty of dogs, the rabbit's death.

I thought doing another proverb about dogs would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb about the "dog's life." In today's proverb, however, the dog is not the victim of the disaster. Instead, it is the rabbit that is the victim, doomed by the pack of dogs who hunt that rabbit down, no matter how fast and nimbly the rabbit runs.

You can see again from the form canum just how important it is to be aware of the distinction between the first-second declension adjective canus, "grey-white," with the neuter singular canum, and the third declension noun canis, "dog," with the genitive plural canum. The genitive plural of third declension nouns ending in -um is something that it really takes some getting used to.

The word for rabbit, lepus, is also a bit tricky. It is a third-declension noun, with a stem lepor-, as you can see in the genitive singular form here, leporis. The problem is that there is another third declension noun, lepos (or lepor) in the nominative singular, meaning "charm, elegance," which is also leporis in the genitive singular. These words are surprisingly easy to get mixed up, although from context you should usually be able to distinguish between the rabbit and the elegance!

Of course, in English, there is the homonym of "hare" and "hair," so we really cannot be too critical of the ambiguities in other people's languages, eh? Personally, I think the word "hare" has largely fallen into disuse, especially in American English, precisely because of the annoying homonym with "hair." It just makes the word more trouble than it's worth, so we regard all those long-eared little critter as "rabbits" even when some of them are, more precisely speaking, "hares."

There's another Latin word for this creature which is worth looking at: cuniculus. It is from this Latin word (itself perhaps of Spanish origin?) that we ultimately get the English word "coney" meaning rabbit. And yes, this is how Coney Island got its name, since the Dutch who named the island discovered that it was overrun with rabbits! Presumably those rabbits were fortunate enough to live free of the fear of dogs, unlike the poor rabbit in today's proverb!

So, hoping you are not having as hard a time as this little rabbit, here is today's proverb read out loud:

311. Multitudo canum, mors leporis.

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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1 comment:

niobe said...

Ohmigosh. This is the Best. Blog. Ever. Ironically enough, I found it by doing a search for "shot in the dark."

Sorry. I'm not usually so enthusiastic. Detached cynicism -- and, yes, I know that comes from the word for dog -- is more my style. But this has absolutely made my day.