April 04, 2007

Trium litterarum homo: fur

In English: A man of five letters: thief.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's post, where I mentioned some Latin word rebuses. Today's saying from Plautus is a word game that cannot be translated directly into English. The Latin says trium litterarum homo, "a man of three letters," and those letters, in Latin, are F-U-R, fur, the word for thief. In trying to render the saying in English, I opted for making the English version about a man of "five letters," T-H-I-E-F.

I have to confess to a personal predilection for these kinds of words games where you become suddenly self-aware of the word as a word, instead of or in addition to its meaning. For example, I love the little riddle in English, "What's round on both ends and high in the middle?" The answer is... OHIO.

Yes, I even like such riddles as "What word is usually spelled incorrectly?" The answer... "Incorrectly." Or this one: "From what word can you take the whole and still leave some?" The answer.... "Wholesome." Or: "How do you make 'one' disappear?" The answer... "Add a 'g' and it's gone."

There are similar kinds of riddles in Latin, too. For example, there is the riddling salutation: mitto tibi navem prora puppique carentem, "I send you a ship lacking stern and bow." The clue is Latin navem, the word for "ship." Take away the prow and the stern of the word, i.e., the first and last letters, and you are left with the traditional Latin salution, ave. This works for "ship" in English, too - take away stern and bow and you get "hi" (thanks to Mike Howard for that one!).

Here's another one! Ego sum principium mundi et finis saeculorum attamen non sum deus, "I am the beginning of the world and the end of the ages, but I am not God." What is the answer? The letter M. It is the beginning of the Latin world, mundi, the end of the Latin ages saeculorum.

Any other favorite riddles about words and letters and spellings? Please feel free to share them here in the comments section!

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

320. Trium litterarum homo: fur.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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Chris said...

Those (Latin) riddles are great! Where do they come from?

Chris said...

(The English ones are great too -- I didn't mean to imply otherwise -- but I'm more curious about the sources for the Latin ones...)

Laura Gibbs said...

hi Chris, like all good folklore, riddles don't have a specific source - you will find them all over the Internet, though, and if you google either one of these you will find other pages with related materials. I have seen the "navem" riddle attributed to Cicero but I don't honestly know if he used it or not!

Chris said...

Oh yes, I didn't mean "who wrote them", but "where do we know them from" -- are they from Cicero's times or medieval times or 19th C. English schoolboy jokes or whatnot. I'm interested in the flavor of Latin over time, and so I'm always curious about when (and where) to place different types of wordplay.

Laura Gibbs said...

although the same problem still remains: written evidence for things that might have circulated orally can only answer the question about when it was written down. for example, the joke in the post here about someone being a "three-letter word" - was that original to Plautus? did Plautus spark the use of the term? and so on... I'd give anything to be able to do folklore field work just to ask Romans, medieval monks, English schoolboys etc. about where they THINK something comes from. over and over again, you will see proverbs attributed to Horace as if he can be the author of a proverb in the same way that he is the author of an ode, simply because we do so want words to have authors. :-)

Mike Howard said...

The "ship without a stern or bow" also works in English as a salutation: take away the s and p and you are left with "hi".

Laura Gibbs said...

THANK YOU Mike Howard!!! that is fabulous! I am editing the blog post to reflect your comment here. wonderful!! :-)

Anonymous said...

Thomas Aquinas once tried to persuade one of his beloved young monks to have dinner in a Roman tavern. When his endeavours proved unfruitful, he sent the monk a token of his desires in disguise of an ontological question:

Quaero a te, si fit amputatio primi et extremi pedis − mus tamen?

Being endowed with a wide range of talents, the young monk answered: "Even without a tail, a mouse is still a mouse, and all right, I give in and you win."