June 01, 2007

Lupus in fabula

In English: The wolf in conversation.

I'm carrying on with the wolf theme of the past few days, and I was inspired by Michael Gilleland's great post about wolves over at Laudator Temporis Acti today. He takes up the topic of the ancient belief that the sight of a wolf could strike someone dumb, something like our phrase "the cat's got his tongue." I thought I would tackle this most famous saying about wolves in Latin, lupus in fabuls, "the wolf in conversation."

The Latin saying about the wolf is the equivalent of the English saying "Speak of the devil... and he will appear." This saying has been known in English for hundreds of years, and there are some nice variations: "Talk of the Devil, and he's presently at your elbow" or ""Talk of the Devil, and see his horns."

The idea behind the Latin saying is that you should be careful speaking about the wolf, because he just might appear. Or, to adapt the English saying, "talk of the wolf, and see his fangs." Here's how the grammarian Pompeius explains the meaning of the Latin saying, de nescioquo loquebaris et subito venit is, dicis tu, 'lupus in fabula', "you were speaking about somebody or other and all of a sudden that person arrives; you say, 'lupus in fabula.'"

You can find the saying lupus in fabula in Terence and in Cicero, and also in Plautus, in the form lupus in sermone, "the wolf in the talk."

Don't be fooled by the Latin word fabula. It does indeed mean "fable," but it also means "common talk, conversation." It is from the same root that you see in the verb fari, "to speak," and it gives rise to the Spanish word hablar, meaning "to speak." Plautus gives us a good clue here by using the word sermo instead of fabula in his version of the proverb.

So - speaking of proverbs! - here is today's proverb read out loud:

141. Lupus in fabula.

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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