July 17, 2007

Amicus omnibus, amicus nemini

In English: A friend to all, a friend to none.

Yesterday's proverb warned us about moderation in friendship (Amici nec multi nec nulli, "Friends: not many, not none"), and I thought today's proverb would make a good follow-up, since it explains just why it is that the person who has many friends has failed in friendship. By trying to be a friend to too many, he ends up being a friend to none at all!

The Latin word nemo is one of my favorites. When I was a child, I loved the movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, with the famous Captain Nemo, although at the time I did not understand that it means "nobody." Or, more literally, it means "no-person," since the Latin nemo, is simply a contraction of the words ne and homo - a contraction that is all the easier to understand when we realize that many Romans did indeed drop their h's! You can see the pattern very clearly in the declension: genitive hominis-neminis, accusative hominem-neminem, ablative homine-nemine, and dative homini-nemini - as in today's proverb.

The Latin word omnibus has the special distinction of having become an English word in its own right. The word omnibus, dative plural of the Latin omnis, is now used in English to mean "something that contains a large number of diverse items." You most often see the word used in reference to legislation ("an omnibus bill") or for literary anthologies ("The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus").

Thanks to the French, who introduced the voiture omnibus, the public carriage ("carriage for all") in 1820, the English started using the word "omnibus" in 1829 to refer to a public vehicle that took on passengers. In the same way, we also get the "bus-boy," the poor person in the restaurant whose job it is to attend to all the diners, omnibus.

Over time, this English "omnibus" was shorted to "bus" - a word we now use all the time, but hardly think of as Latin! Various Latin wits have normalized the "omnibus" or "bus" to be a Latin second declension noun, creating the alleged plurals "omnibi" or "bi" (ha!).

So, for your amusement, here is a little poem called The Motor Bus which was written by A.D. Godley (you can even listen to the audio recording at wikipedia). It is a poem that gave me great pleasure as a Latin student in Oxford, where you will find the "Corn and High" intersection, filled, indeed, with motor buses!

What is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo

Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:
Wither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.

How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!

So, in honor of the "omnibus," here is today's proverb read out loud:

518. Amicus omnibus, amicus nemini.

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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