July 09, 2007

Quo altior gradus, tanto profundior casus

In English: The higher the step, the deeper the fall.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to the previous proverb, Quo altior mons, tanto profundior vallis, "The higher the mountain, the lower the valley." You can see that the two proverbs have a very similar grammatical structure, although today's saying is far more ominous!

The closest English parallel would be the well-known saying, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." That saying, however, is built on the metaphor of weight, with the corresponding qualities of "big" and "hard."

The Latin saying, however, is built on the metaphor of height, with the corresponding qualities of "higher" and "deeper."

What I really like about the Latin in today's saying, however, is the nicely coordinated use of the verbal nouns, gradus, "step" (compare with gredi, "to step") and casus, "fall" (compare with cadere, "to fall"). Even though there is not a verb to be found in this saying, the use of these verbal nouns makes it feel very "verbal" indeed, an action you can see in motion: up, up, up (gradus) and down, down, down (casus).

Latin students may also recognize that it is the word casus that gives us the word "case" in English, which we use for the Latin cases: nominative, genitive, accusative, dative, ablative and vocative (nominativus, genitivus, accusativus, ablativus and vocativus in Latin).

But just how is it that nouns and adjectives "fall" into their cases? To explain the use of Latin casus as a grammatical term, we have to give the Greeks the credit, rather than the Romans, since the Latin casus is a translation of Greek πτῶσις (ptosis).

This Greek root for "falling" has not given us very many English words directly, but I thought I would mention the three I was able to find. The first is "symptom" (Greek syn and pto), which means in Greek "a befalling, happening, accident, disease." (The English "accident" is from the Latin cad/cid, which is equivalent to Greek pto.)

Closely related is the word "asymptote," which you may remember from math class as the straight line that a curve approaches but never touches - hence a-sym-pto, "NOT-together-falling."

Finally, the other Greek pto word in English is ptomaine! This is from the Greek word ptoma, "a corpse," which is definitely something that falls down (compare English "cadaver" from Latin cad again). In Englsh, "ptomaine" refers to poisonous substances produced by the natural decay of protein in dead animal tissue. Ugh.

So, hoping you manage to stay on your feet today, avoiding all ptomaines, here is today's proverb read out loud:

685. Quo altior gradus, tanto profundior casus.

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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