Monday, August 4, 2008

Melior est pugillus cum requie quam plena utraque manus cum labore

In English: Better is a little handful accompanied by relaxation than both hands full, accompanied by exertion. (Ecc. 4:6)

I've been so busy with Aesop's fables and the fable book this summer, that I have not had much time for posting here, but I thought I would add another verse here today which carries on with the theme of parallelism which I've been exploring in some previous posts. Parallelism can be used for rhetorical purposes in aphorisms, and you can see that done very nicely here in this saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes, which features two parallel noun phrases, each featuring a prepositional phrase with cum.

The predicate adjective comes first, melior est, and the comparative form of the adjective leads you to expect two items. The better item comes first, in the nominative: pugillus cum requie, a small handful, a little fist full of something (of food, of money, the specifics are not important), accompanied by relaxation, cum requie. The thing being compared is then introduced by quam, "than," and the noun phrase has a structure which parallels the structure of the first noun phrase: plena utraque manus cum labore, "both hands full, accompanied by exertion." Both noun phrases consist of a noun and a prepositional phrase, cum:

Melior est
pugillus cum requie
plena utraque manus cum labore.
The Latin has the added benefit of a bit of sound play between the p in pugillus and in plena.

The real charm of the verse in Latin, however, is the contrast between the words pugillus and plena utraque manus. The word pugillus is a diminutive of pugnus, a fist, meaning "a little fistful." The use of the fist here, and the diminutive of fist in particular, suggests the idea that there is so little of the stuff, whatever it is (money, food, etc.), that you have to clench your fist just to hold onto it, as opposed to hands that are so full you could not even close them into a fist if you wanted to.

At the same time, this tiny little handful comes with requie, peace and quiet, as opposed to the labore required for those two full hands. I'm definitely someone who has taken the "little fistful" approach to life, so this is a saying that I like very much.

As for the Latin pugnus, "fist," this is a very productive root in Latin, yielding the word pugnare, "to fight," and it is also where we get our term "pugilist" in English, meaning a boxer!

So, hoping you have fistfuls of happiness today, without any fistfights, here is today's verse read out loud:

458. Melior est pugillus cum requie quam plena utraque manus cum labore.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Vulgate Verses: 4000 Sayings from the Bible for Teachers and Students of Latin.

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