April 24, 2007

Ubi dolor, ibi digitus

In English: Where there's pain, there's the finger.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's saying about music, the medicine of pains, dolores. Today's saying tells us that when somebody's got some kind of pain, dolor, they cannot help but finger it. Compare the English saying, "One must needs scratch where it itches." (This is precisely the gloss that Robert Burton provides on the Latin saying in his Anatomy of Melancholy.)

One of the most curious instances of today's Latin saying is its use as an inscription of a monument called "The Stanley Child," erected circa 1460 in the village of Elford in Staffordshire, England. The stone sculpture honors "Young John," the last male heir to the Elford estate, who was killed by a tennis ball.

Yes, the story goes that the boy was hit in the head by a tennis ball, which caused his death. In the stone sculpture, he is shown reclining, with his feet resting on a little dog. In his left hand, he holds a ball, and with his right hand he is reaching up and touching his head. Hence the Latin inscription, which reads clearly Ubi dolor, ibi digitus. You can see the inscription, along with the little dog, and the boy's pathetic gesture, touching his wounded head, in this black-and-white drawing, originally published in Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1903). You can also get a good view in this photograph, which is taken looking down at the poor boy from above (source).

The place of tennis in Renaissance England is immortalized in this passage from Shakespeare's Henry V. The French ambassador has brought gifts from the Dauphin for Henry, and Henry asks:

K. Henry. What treasure, uncle?
Exeter. Tennis balls, my liege.
K. Henry. We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.

Hazard indeed! As poor "Young John" from Staffordshire discovered, tennis balls can be deadly.

So, here is today's proverb read out loud - but no flying tennis balls, I promise!

984. Ubi dolor, ibi digitus.

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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