June 28, 2007

Paulum lucri, quantum damni

In English: So little profit, so much loss.

After yesterday's saying with quantum, I thought I would do another quantum saying today. This one is based on a very simple structure, using partitive genitives: "So little (of) profit, so much (of) loss."

The statement is a thought-provoking paradox. How could there be both profit (lucrum, "gain, profit," as in the English word "lucre") and loss (damnum, "loss, injury" as in the English word "damnation" or "damage") at the same time?

The idea is that you could enjoy some kind of small monetary profit, but it could come at a tremendous loss - a loss of reputation, a loss of time, even the loss of human life. Or you might think of the companies making a profit today, but destroying the environment, creating damage that we will have to pay for many times over the in future.

The saying is adapted from a play by Terence, Heauton Timorumenos (commonly translated as "The Self-Tormentor"): haud scit hoc paullum lucri quantum ei damnum adportet, "he does not know how much loss this little bit of profit will bring him!" The paradox of a little profit at great loss is perfect for the deceptions of Roman comedy, where characters think they are acting in their own best interests, only to find out they have been the victim of the subterfuge of another character!

There is a variant on this saying which expresses basically the same idea: Parva lucra solent afferre maiora detrimenta, "Small profits are accustomed to bring greater setbacks." Although there is a nice contrast between parva-maiora, this saying does not have the nice proverbial ring that you can hear in Paulum lucri, quantum damni.

In fact, today's saying is so quintessentially proverbial in its form that you could use it to make up some Latin sayings of your own! For example, paulum sapientiae, quantum loquelae, "so little wisdom, so much talk." Just find two nouns you want to put in the genitive, and you can easily create your own paradoxical proverb!

Meanwhile, here is the "official" proverb read out loud:

954. Paulum lucri, quantum damni.

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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