December 16, 2007

Quasi nix tabescit dies

In English: Like snow, the day melts away.

I thought I would do a proverb about "snow" in honor of the winter weather that has beset so many people in the past days. You can find this saying in the playwright Plautus.

The comparison is introduced with quasi, literally "as-if" - and, of course, the word "quasi" has become an English word in its own right. Just like snow, the day (or time itself, if you prefer), seems to melt away, tabescit. This Latin word, tabescit, has more negative connotations than the English word "melt." In Latin, tabes was the fluid resulting from putrefaction, so this simile manages to suggest that the day as it melts or decays is part of the inevitable decay of the world, a mortal corruption something like the corruption of the body, in addition to being as inevitable as the melting of the snow.

Here is another simile about the melting snow, this time from one of the Heroides of the poet Ovid: More nivis lacrimae sole madentis eunt, "In the manner of melting snow in the sun, my tears flow." These are the words that the grieving Laodamia writes to her husband Protesilaus, who has departed for the Trojan war. Her tears are justified, for Protesilaus was to be the first of the Greeks to set foot on Trojan soil and thus doomed to be the first of the Greeks to die in battle. You can read more of the story of Protesilaus and Laodamia at wikipedia.

Of course, the melting snow is usually not an occasion for somber reflections or tears; instead, people are usually glad when the ice melts and the snows recede, so of course there are some happier similes in the Latin poets as well. For example, in the Ars Amatoria, Ovid writes: ut fragilis glacies, interit ira mora, "like the brittle ice, anger disappears after a time." I like very much the idea that anger is something that will just melt away like ice although, to be honest, regardless of Ovid's simile here, anger feels to me more like a fire that will feed on anything at all until it has destroyed everything around it!

Perhaps the most famous "melting snow" line from Latin poetry would be this bit from one of the Odes of Horace: diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis / arboribus comae, "the snows have fled away and now the grass returns to the fields, the leaves to the trees."

So, in the assurance that spring will eventually supplant the snows of winter, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1941. Quasi nix tabescit dies.

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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