August 09, 2007

Nec caput nec pedes habet

In English: It hasn't got a head or feet.

This is a follow-up to yesterday's proverb, which was also about the head and the feet. Today's proverb is the Latin equivalent of "I can't make heads or tails out of it."

In other words, you can't tell where something starts (caput) or where it stops (pedes), you can't tell which way is up and which way is down. Bascially, the thing just doesn't make any sense at all; you can't make heads or tails out of it!

You can find this phrase used in Roman authors such as Cicero and also in Plautus (nec caput nec pes sermoni apparet). The phrase also makes a famous appearance in Horace's Ars Poetica: velut aegri somnia, vanae fingentur species, ut nec pes nec caput uni reddatur formae, "like the dreams of a sick person, senseless images are fashioned in such a way that neither head nor foot can be associated in a single shape."

I thought it would be fun to reflect here on the way that the metaphor of the caput and the pes have become important metaphors for how we organize words on the written page.

From the Latin caput, we get the word "chapter," which was originally a "heading," a word which is itself based on the same metaphor. The "chapter" was the heading, and then, by metonymical extension, everything contained under that particular heading. It was the diminutive Latin capitulum, "little head," which gave rise to the French chapitle, which had the alternate form chapitre, hence English "chapter." The word went through many variant spellings in English before it stabilized, as is the case for so many English words taken from French. For "chapter," the Oxford English Dictionary lists the following variant spellings: cheapitre, chapitre, chapitere, chaptire, chaptour, chapiter, chapyture, chappytre, chapiltre, chaptur, chapytre, chapyter, chapytour, chapitour, chapiture, chapit, and cheptour.

So, at the top of the page is the "heading" and at the bottom of the page is the footnote! This, however, is a much later term, dating to the nineteenth century. In Italian, they are called "nota a piè di pagina," "notes at the foot of the page."

Of course, the Internet and "web" pages have provoked a need for new metaphors to keep up with the new technology. The idea of headings is still immensely important in the world of the web and is enshrined in the language of HTML itself (H1, H2, H3...), but the poor footnotes are really struggling to survive. Webpages have not lost their heads, but their feet are a bit harder to find!

So, hoping you are able to make heads and tails out of whatever is going on in your life at the moment, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1430. Nec caput nec pedes habet.

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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CoolCat said...

Salve! I like your blog a lot. I thought of another way this proverb could be interpreted: It could be a way of saying that someone/something is not capable of doing any useful work: neither creating ideas with one's head nor trudging along, carrying a heavy burden, on one's feet. I emailed it to my Latin teacher, and she suggested that I see what you thought of it. Is it plausible?
Gratias tibi ago!

Laura Gibbs said...

ABSOLUTELY! The meaning of a proverb comes from the way that people use it, and the context is very important. That metaphor of the body is one that you often see in the fables, like in the famous fable where the hands of the body went on strike! So the idea of the head and the hands for different kinds of tasks and activities really fits the ancient world. Here is the fable about the revolt of the members of the body.