January 20, 2008

Stercus optimum vestigium domini

In English: The master's footstep is the best fertilizer.

I decided to post this as the saying for today since it provides a good thematic follow-up to the similar saying, Dominus habet oculos centum, "The master has a hundred eyes," which I wrote about last time. I have had a great fondness for this saying ever since it caused a moment of complete hilarity in a Latin class many years ago.

As you can guess, this is a saying that, out of context, is fraught with considerable peril. The word stercus is already a problem - the word "shit" is a vital part of English vocabulary, but with all kinds of dangerous connotations, and the safer translation, "manure," is not a word much used in English anymore, since we are not busy hauling our manure to our fields to fertilize them these days.

But the real problem is the word dominus. For students who have done some reading in the Bible or who pray in Latin, the temptation to translate dominus as "Lord" (with a capital L), is often irresistible, and they often even go one step further and say "God." So, a very nice Catholic student in my class, stammering with embarrassment, provided the translation, "God's track is the best shit" (clearly hoping that the Latin "shit" might have the same weird slang meaning as English does in phrases like "this is damn good shit"). The intonational question mark at the end of his statement let everyone know that he was not very confident about this, and the whole class burst into very long laughter about the whole thing.

Yet when I asked if anybody could figure out how this proverb worked and what it meant, I got no takers out of a room of thirty people. That happened quite often, though, whenever a proverb depended on some kind of agricultural metaphor that was just not part of their everyday thinking. For myself, I had vivid memories (including vivid olfactory memories) of the days when the folks on the farm where I lived in Poland would put handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths and load up wagons full of manure to haul it to the fields for fertilizer, even emptying the outhouse for that purpose (we did not have running water, so the outhouse was a fully functioning establishment).

So, given that I could immediately associate stercus with one of its main uses (perhaps its only real "use"), the proverb was easy for me to understand. For things to go well on a farm, the most important thing is for the master to walk around and see for himself what is going on. His pacing about the farm and the footsteps he leaves as he goes about his rounds would do even more to make the farm prosper than the use of manure thickly spread on the ground for fertilizer. In other words, very much the same message as in dominus habet oculos centum.

There are a host of other Latin sayings that express this same idea: Fertilissimus in agro oculus domini, "The master's eye is most productive in the field" (i.e. not sitting at home, ignorant of what is happening), Oculi et vestigia domini, res agro saluberrimae, "The eyes and steps of the master are things most beneficial for the field," and - another one of my favorites for its weirdly graphic quality - Optimus est fimus, qui cadit de calceis domini in agrum, "The best manure is that which falls from the heels of the master in the field."

So, hoping that nothing important in your household has escaped your watchful eye, here is today's proverb read out loud:

248. Stercus optimum vestigium domini.

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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Mark said...

Thanks for your very fertile explanation. I admit to being mystified by the proverb until I read it.

Separated as we are in modern America from a master-servant culture, and often from the farmer's life as well, it is hard to imagine "equivalent" proverbs in English. "When the cat's away, the mice will play" is perhaps not unrelated; or "If you want something done right, do it yourself."

With best wishes,

Mark Speyer
New York

Laura Gibbs said...

Aha, exactly: "If you want something done right, do it yourself." I think that is very much the idea: don't delegate.

There's a great Aesop's fable about the lark who has nested in the grass and stays there while the farmer waits for his friends to come help him mow, and then for his relatives, but when the farmer realizes he is going to have to mow the field himself, THAT is when the lark picks up and moves. She knows that now that he is going to do it himself, it really is going to get done! :-)

Lark and Farmer

Aurora said...

That really is a funny story about your student. It is also interesting how far we are from the agricultural metaphors of those times and places.

Solfinker said...

We spaniards say:
El ojo del amo engorda el caballo

Laura Gibbs said...

FANTASTIC! Is that a proverb people still use in everyday Spanish? In English, the agricultural proverbs have lost a lot of their vitality - I guess it is hard for people to make the metaphorical connection between the farming life and the many ways in which the same logic applies to our industrial world, but in our modern industrial world we are not very good at making up new proverbs to replace the ones we have lost!

Solfinker said...

I've never thought of this as an agricultural proverb (el ojo del amo...) but yes it is, and it is used in everyday Spanish. Unfortunately, young people don't use proverbs anymore - they don't know them - and their use surprises them.