August 08, 2008

Perdimus anguillam dum manibus stringimus illam

In English: We lose the eel as we are squeezing it between our hands.

Here is the latest in what is turning into a nice long series of proverbs featuring animals. In today's proverb, the nice rhyme - anguillam... illam - betrays its medieval origins. There are some other nice medieval variants on the same idea: anguilla a digitis saepe est dilapsa peritis, "an eel often has slipped out of fingers that are skilled" (the word order of a digitis... peritis is very nice!), or non habet anguillam per caudam qui tenet illam, "someone who's grasped an eel by the tail doesn't hold it."

Obviously, all three proverbs depend on the slipperiness of the eel - and even in English today, "slippery as an eel" is still a familiar cliche. Yet each of these Latin proverbs casts a slightly different emphasis on the slipperiness of that eel. Something can get away even from the most skilled operator (someone with digiti periti). Alternatively, if you think you've grabbed hold of something, that doesn't mean you've really got it (habet versus tenet).

What I like best about the version I selected for today, however, is the way it uses first person plural to pull us all into the situation: this is not about a generic person, but about all of us. Just as we think we are seizing the objective, grasping it in our own hands, it's going to slip away from us. That could be health or wealth or happiness - any of those cosmically slippery things that might slide right out of our hands just as we are hanging on as tightly as we can.

The proverb is not prescriptive, of course - it does not tell us what to do. Instead, it is an enlightenment proverb. Just in case you had fooled yourself into thinking you really had got hold of that eel... think again! :-)

So, hoping you are not suffering too much from the slipperiness of life today, here is the proverb read out loud:

1933. Perdimus anguillam dum manibus stringimus illam.

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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1 comment:

Fredy Lorentz said...

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