Today's saying describes someone who is scared of absolutely everything, even something as small as a mouse. It's something like the English saying about somebody "being scared of his own shadow," which is to say, someone who is scared of something insubstantial that cannot do him any harm at all. The scurrying of mouse makes a perceptible sound so that it is something you would notice - but only somebody who is really trembling with fear is going to shudder at the movement of that mouse.
The idea behind this proverb is a very simple one, and easy for us to grasp. Yet the Latin here can really trip students up, since we are in the realm here of "little" Latin words, words like licet and vel, which do not have a simple formulaic English translation that can be applied in all cases. These little words are, indeed, like the mouse of today's proverb: it is the scurrying of these little Latin words that can strike fear into the heart of the Latin student. But no need: the words are here to convey meaning, not to do you any harm. So, let's take a look at both of these little words, licet and vel.
The word licet can be a real conundrum for Latin students. Sometimes licet can be a verb which is used impersonally to express permission or license to do something, as in one of my favorite Latin proverbs, Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, "What is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to the ox." Here licet is being used as the main verb in each clause, with a dative complement.
Sometimes, however, licet is used, not as a verb, but as an adverb. In particular, it can be used as a conjunction, expressing the idea that (even if) something is permitted, (nevertheless) something else. For a specific example, here's a line from Seneca: Vita brevis est, licet supra mille annos exeat, "Life is short, even if it were to extend more than a thousand years." Notice that in English we render this licet with the conjunctive adverbial phrase "even if." You can tell that licet is not really functioning as a verb in this sentence, because there is another finite verb right there in the same clause: exeat. So, exeat is the verb, and licet is serving as an adverb. That is the same case in today's proverb: Ad omnia trepidat, licet vel mus movet, where movet is the verb, and licet is playing the role of an adverb (the fact that the verb used here is indicative, rather than subjunctive, shows that the saying is probably post-classical in origin).
What then about the vel? This is a word that students are often taught to automatically render with the English word "or" - a word which obviously will not work here: the sentence, "He trembles at everything, even if or a mouse moves," simply does not make sense.
If you think about the etymology of Latin vel, you can find a good clue for how to proceed here. Like licet, the adverbial vel also comes from a verbal root: volo. The word vel is, in fact, an old imperative form of the verb volo: "want!" So, historically, the way to understand the meaning of the Latin word vel is something very much like our English idiom, "if you please," where some kind of alternative is expressed in terms of the subjective wishes of the recipient of the message: "(or if) you like."
The problem, of course, is that the use of the English idiom "if you like" is a bit heavy-handed for translating the Latin vel. So, what you have to do whenever you face a Latin vel, is to try a range of English translations - the simple "or" might suffice, but if it does not, as in the case of today's proverb, you need to be prepared to search through a wider range of English idioms. I opted for "so much as a mouse" in today's translation, hoping to capture some more of the charm of the Latin alliteration in mus movet. As always, translation is an art - imperfect at best - where being able to convey the "spirit" of the original sometimes requires a bit of creativity with the "letter" of the original - if you please! :-)
So, hoping you will not tremble at the mouse-like little words of Latin that you find scurrying about in today's proverb, here it is read out loud:
1537. Ad omnia trepidat, licet vel mus movet.
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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