September 10, 2007

Anulus aureus in naribus suis

In English: A gold ring in a pig's nose.

I thought after the previous proverb about the ugly but contented pig that this would be a good follow-up. The idea here, of course, is that a gold ring does not belong in a pig's nose, and the incongruity of proverbial loveliness and proverbial ugliness provides a pointed commentary for any similar situation, where something elegant and lovely appears in a setting that is completely inappropriate.

This item appears in Erasmus's Adagia, who comments: Ubi res quaepiam per se praeclara illic adhibetur, ubi minime addecet. Ut, si stulto contingant opes, fatuae forma, genus ignavo, eloquentia viro improbo, magistratus imperito. His enim rebus non modo non ornantur, verum etiam magis ridiculi fiunt. This proverb is used "when something which in and of itself is quite splendid is put in some place where it is least appropriate, as when wealth is given to a man who is a fool, or beauty to a silly woman, or noble birth to a lazy man, or skill in speaking to a wicked man, or public office to a man with no experience. In fact, not only are these things not adorned as a result; they actually become more ridiculous."

Erasmus's inclusion of the fatua, the "silly woman," is probably a conscious allusion to the version of this saying in the Biblical Book of Proverbs: Circulus aureus in naribus suis mulier pulchra et fatua, "A gold ring in the snout of a pig (is like) a woman who is beautiful and silly."

Of course, the Latin word for pig (swine, hog, sow), sus, is usually not at the top of everybody's vocabulary list, which makes it easy for people to mistake the suis in this proverb as meaning "his own," as if in naribus suis meant "in his own nose." Definitely not: in naribus suis here means in the snout of a pig. The word suis here is the genitive singular of the noun, sus.

Of course, we have our own problems with the word "sow" in English, similar as it is to that tangle of words in English for "sewing" with needle and thread, along with "sowing" seeds in the garden. The pig, "sow," in English rhymes with "cow," fortunately, while to "sow" in your garden unfortunately sounds exactly like what you do with needle and thread.

So (another homynym with "sew" - eegad!), before you get too distressed about the ambiguity of Latin suis, just remember what an awful mess of homonyms the English language has become over time!

I've never heard this saying about the sow and the gold ring in English, but of course we have many similar sayings about the poor pig, such as "You can put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig."

Meanwhile, feeling a bit sorry for the poor pig, here is today's proverb read out loud:

391. Anulus aureus in naribus suis.

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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Anonymous said...

Oh, my! you've never heard this saying in English? It's quite popular in the Southern states. Also, if you've ever heard a Southern country pig farmer calling for his pigs, he calls "Suis! Suis! Here, pig, pig, pig!" It is a quite common call, although I doubt that any of them would realize that it is directly from Latin. Most of the population in the Southern states were/are direct Scots or Irish descendants who still use many forms of speech common to Gaelic speakers and common to middle Latin. It is a quite fascinating region, linguisticly, and I did not know how unique it was to have grown up there or how different my speech and writing patterns were until I moved North as an adult.

Jerome said...

actually - this is biblical from the Book of Proverbs.
נֶזֶם זָהָב בְּאַף חֲזִיר אִשָּׁה יָפָה וְסָרַת טָעַם׃
vulgate though has
circulus aureus in naribus suis mulier pulchra et fatua

but anulus as ring is more correct - the hebrew nezem (whole phrase, nezem zahav b'af h.azir) means a nose ring - a nosering in a swine's snout (or nose)
anyway, the verse is Proverbs 11:22
Douai is closer to original than KJV. It makes sense that Erasmus goes to the original languages.