November 22, 2008

Edentulus vescentium dentibus invidet

In English: The poor toothless person envies the teeth of the diners.

I thought this proverb about the poor little man without any teeth, edentulus, would make a good follow-up to yesterday's fable about the monkey who didn't have any tail to use to cover its bare behind. Just as the monkey was envious of the fox's long, bushy tail, in this saying, the poor man without any teeth envies the teeth of the people who are eating.

The word edentulus is a real Latin gem, and impossible to render in English. We do have the word "toothless," so that is a start, but the Latin word edentulus is, in addition to meaning "toothless," a diminutive noun, which is generally something impossible to render in English. I've added the word "poor" to the English translation above ("the poor toothless person"), but that is still not quite the same as the magic of the Latin diminutive, which is able to convey that subtle connotation within the very word edentulus itself.

The very term "diminutive" in English misleads us about the wide-ranging expressive power of the diminutive form in Latin. Sometimes, of course, it does refer to something small, in a physical sense of smallness. A corpusculum is a tiny corpus, a "tiny body," which is where we get the English word corpuscle. A musculus is a tiny mus, a "tiny mouse," which is where we get the English word muscle (since a muscle rippling beneath your skin reminded someone of a mouse running!).

Yet the more important uses of the diminutive are metaphorical, rather than simply literal. In a positive sense, the diminutive is a term of endearment. You can see it in the affectionate term for the mother's brother in Latin, the avunculus, which gives us the English word uncle (unlike the Latin word for the father's brother in Latin, the severe and strict uncle: patruus). You can see the diminutives of Latin mel, "honey," melliculum and melculum, used much like we use the word "honey" as a term of affection, but they are all the more endearing in Latin because of the diminutive form. It's not a "little honey" in terms of physical smallness or a small quantity, but instead in the sense of expressing affection.

Yet the diminutive can also be used in a negative sense, indicating something that is small in value, something that is paltry or trifling or deficient in some way. That is the case with the poor edentulus in today's saying: he is not a literally a small person, but metaphorically he is poor and paltry, someone who might deserve our pity although, the in the harshness of the Roman world, could also be someone who merits scorn for his defects.

So, whenever you encounter a Latin diminutive you have to decide just what sense it conveys in its context: does it refer literally to something small, or to something positive and endearing, or to something negative and paltry? If you are going to attempt to render the diminutive Latin word with an English word or phrase, you will need to know just what kind of diminutive you are dealing with to being with!

So, hoping you are happily "toothful" both literally and metaphorically, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3708. Edentulus vescentium dentibus invidet.


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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