May 08, 2007

Vivis piscibus aqua, mortuis vinum.

In English: Water for the live fish, wine for the dead ones.

I thought this would be a good follow-up for yesterday's proverb about the fish and the water. A variant form of the saying is Piscis captivus vinum vult; flumina vivus, "When it's captured, a fish wants wine; while it's alive, it wants rivers."

Fish are perfectly happy to swim in water, but after they are caught and end up on someone's dinner table, they are swimming in wine instead. The humor of this proverb is based on the confusion of categories. Someone who tried to keep a live fish in a fishbowl full of wine would regret it, and someone who found live fish inside their soup would be very distressed, no doubt!

I will confess that my fondness for this proverb goes back to a very old Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Eric Idle, called "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," where in the spirit of fine French cuisine, cheesecake is dumped into an aquarium full of fish, and a bottle of wine is poured into the water. I always wondered about the poor fish in that tank. After all, just as the proverb tells us, "water is for live fish, wine is for dead ones." Somehow I don't think they would be able to claim that "no animals were harmed in the marking of this sketch."

The scene of the food and wine floating around in that aquarium was both terrible and funny at the same time. You know that wine is not supposed to be poured into an aquarium with live fish, and exactly because it's incongruous, it makes you laugh.

There's a whole section of the Humor article in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy devoted to this "incongruity theory" of humor. You can see some eminent philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. explain just why it strikes us as funny when things are out of place.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud, hoping you didn't find any live fish in your Soupe De Poissons!

335. Vivis piscibus aqua, mortuis vinum.

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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