March 03, 2008

Tranquillo quilibet gubernator est

In English: When it's calm, anybody can be the helmsman.

I thought I would post this proverb à propos of what might be the last big primary elections on Tuesday. In particular, I was thinking about a campaign ad being run by the Clinton campaign, and being made directly rebutted by the Obama campaign, about just who is most qualified to pick up that emergency phone when it rings in the White House at 3 a.m. to announce some urgent crisis. As the Latin saying tells us here, when you are sailing on a calm sea, tranquillo, anybody can steer the ship - and what the proverb thus implies, of course, is that when the sea is not calm, not just anybody is going to be qualified to pilot the ship.

The reason I was prompted to choose this proverb in particular is because it features the Latin word gubernator, the helmsman or pilot of the ship. Of course, there is where we get our words for governance; the English word "governor" and all the related words (govern, government, and so on) are direct descendants of the Latin gubernator - so of course, I had to laugh when they were calling Schwarzenegger the "governator" of California - that sounded very Latin indeed!

The Latin itself comes from a Greek word, κυβερνήτης (kubernetes), which morphed into Latin, the unvoiced K being replaced by a voiced G (perhaps through Etruscan), and the Greek -etes suffix replaced by Latin -ator. The English derivatives have gov- instead of the Latin gub-, except for the later addition to the English language, "gubernatorial," which comes more directly from the Latin.

Through another route, the Greek word κυβερνήτης reaches English in the word "cybernetics," where the Greek KUB remains intact, as English cyb-. Cybernetics is an abstract field of control and system theory, meaning the "study of the structure of complex systems, especially communication processes, control mechanisms and feedback principles" (wikipedia). The term "cybernetics" was coined by Norbert Wiener, who studied communication and control processes in both animals and machines, although the word in Greek was already used by Plato; κυβερνητικός (kubernetikos = cybernetic) meant someone good at steering, guiding, governing - steering that proverbial ship of state!

So, happy voting to those of you who live in this Tuesday's primary states! And here is today's proverb read out loud:

951. Tranquillo quilibet gubernator est.

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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