Saturday, April 7, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Cursu Praetervehor Omnes

This is my second "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays.

This little poem comes from a collection of nature emblems by Joachim Camerarius (1534-1598). Camerarius published four of these books of nature emblems, with one hundred emblems in each book. Each emblem consists of a title (often in the form of a motto or proverb), an image, a two-line poem, and a one-page essay. This particular emblem comes from the book devoted to bird emblems. It is about the ostrich, strúthio in Latin.

The title is expressed as a first-person motto, the motto of the ostrich as it were: Cursu Praetérvehor Omnes. Here is what that means:

Cursu. This is from the noun cursus, which means running or a race, a course. (It is a verbal noun; the verb is currere, meaning to run.) Here cursu is in the ablative case, so it means by running, by means of running.

Praetérveho. This is from the verb praetérvehi, to be carried past, to bypass, pass over, surpass. It is a compound: praeter, meaning past or beyond (as in the English word preternatural), and vehi, meaning to be carried, to drive (as in the English word vehicle). The form is first-person singular: I surpass. The verb does not have to take an object, but it can take an object. So, the next question is: whom or what do I, the ostrich, surpass?

Omnes. This is from the adjective omnis, meaning all, every (as in many English compounds: omnivore, omniscient, etc.). Here the form is plural, meaning all persons, everybody.

So, you have the ostrich's motto which provides the title of the emblem: Cursu Praetérvehor Omnes, By running, I surpass all.

Now let's move on to the poem itself:

Quantúmvis húmilis, cursu tamen ánteit omnes
Strúthio: sic virtus quólibet alta loco est.

Quantúmvis. This word means something like English although or however. Literally, it means, however much you want: quantum-vis.

húmilis. You might guess that this Latin word means humble (as you can see more clearly in the English word humility). The etymology of the word is relevant to the poem: it derives from the Latin word humus, meaning ground, earth, soil. Someone humble is close to the ground. (Remember when Charlotte wrote the word humble in her web for Wilbur the pig?)

cursu. We've seen this before in the ostrich's own motto: by means of running.

tamen. This Latin word also means however. It regularly occurs in second position in the phrase, throwing a special emphasis on the previous word: cursu tamen, by RUNNING however.

ánteit. This is another compound verb: ante+it, goes before, precedes, surpasses. (Compare the English word exit, also a compound, meaning go out, ex+it.) It is a third-person singular form, and we don't know the subject yet - but it's probably the ostrich, of course. This verb can stand by itself, or it can take an object. Who or what does the ostrich surpass? The motto gives us a clue to the answer!

omnes. We've seen this before in the motto: everyone. It is the object of the verb ánteit that we just saw: ánteit omnes, it goes before everyone, it surpasses all.

So, that gives us the first line: Quantúmvis húmilis, cursu tamen ánteit omnes - Although it is humble, by RUNNING however, it surpasses all.

Now we are ready for the second line, which opens with the word we expected all along for the subject of the verb:

Strúthio. This is a late Latin word for ostrich, from the Greek word strouthion.

So, that gives us our first sentence: Quantúmvis húmilis, cursu tamen ánteit omnes / strúthio - Although it is humble, the ostrich, by running, surpasses all.

Having described the literal ostrich, Camerarius will interpret the ostrich as a symbol in order to reveal a moral lesson.

sic. You may know this Latin word already, as it is sometimes used in English copy editing. It means so, thus, in this way, likewise. The word sic is a common way to introduce a simile in Latin.

virtus. This is the Latin word that gives us the English word virtue; here it is in the nominative case, so we know it will be the subject of the sentence. The word virtus has a whole range of meanings in Latin. Literally it means manliness or manhood (from the word for man, vir). By extension, it means strength, bravery, courage and, even more broadly, it means worth or excellence in general.

quólibet alta loco est. This is an interwoven phrase in Latin, a playful type of word order which we cannot quite manage in English. To make the word order easier, let's take it this way: alta est quólibet loco.

alta est. The word altus means tall (as in English altitude), but it also means lofty, noble, high-minded, etc. The verb est is from the verb esse, to be; it is in the third-person singular form: is. So we now have the verb we need with our subject: virtus alta est; excellence is lofty, excellence is noble.

quólibet loco. The Latin word locus means place (compare the English word location), and the adjective quílibet means whatever. Literally, quílibet means what-it-pleases, whatever you like (qui-libet). Put the two words together and you get: quólibet loco; any place whatsoever, no matter where. Including, of course, way down on the ground where the ostrich does its running. The phrase is in the ablative case, which can express location all by itself; in Latin prose you might expect to see a preposition included in the phrase as well: in quólibet loco.

Put it all together and you get: sic virtus quólibet alta loco est - likewise, excellence is noble no matter where it is found.

As the ostrich shows, lofty virtue, virtus alta, may be found down low on the ground, húmilis; likewise, humble people can still be noble because of their excellent qualities. Although the ostrich is earth-bound and cannot fly, it outpaces all the other birds because it runs so fast: cursu ánteit omnes.

So, take a look at the poem again.

Cursu Praetérvehor Omnes
Quantúmvis húmilis, cursu tamen ánteit omnes
Strúthio: sic virtus quólibet alta loco est.

By Running I Surpass Everyone
Although it is humble, the ostrich, by running, surpasses all: likewise, excellence is noble no matter where it is found.

For more of Camerarius's poems in Latin, you can visit the Camerarius stream in my Latin distichs blog. Here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. I've added a third essay about a poem which has a very famous Latin saying as its title: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.


  1. I love your new essay format. One learns more Latin this way than by just reading a translation.

    I would love you to do Horace's Vides ut alta stet nive candidum/Soracte ... in the same manner (nearly every word in the poem has an English relative). But of course that would be a long essay!

  2. Ha ha, Arcady7, you have figured out the great secret of the Latin distich: it is SO SHORT. After years of experimenting with various shorts forms of Latin writing (fables, proverbs, mottoes, jokes), I think I have found the perfect solution with these distichs. They are long enough, but not too long, for something really substantial and magical to go on in the space of just two lines! :-)

  3. In your hands each distich is like a folder or a link which opens up when you click on it to reveal all the goodies inside. I look forward to more clicks, and more unfolded magic (excuse archaic imagery; I still use a mouse)

    Am I allowed one tiny nitpick? I think you could have spelled out for Latin newbies why locus became loco in quolibet loco.

  4. Excellent! That's what I like about this electronic form - very easy to add things. I will do that right now! It's a bit weird writing these things, trying to put myself in the place of someone not knowing Latin... I will get better at it over time and, paradoxically, I think it will make me a more careful reader of Latin, too.

  5. I was impressed the first time I visited your blogs on proverbs, fables etc. This addition here in the form of distich is really awesome. In addition to learning grammatical forms and the content of the little poem, another added advantage here seems to be the introduction of latin authors whose names I would otherwise find difficult to data mine.

    When did you learn Sanskrit? you mentioned subhashitams in one of your comments. I am a lover of subhashitams. Their number is mind-boggling. There is a compilation of 10,000 subhashitams by a scholar. How do you compare sanskrit and latin?(I mean only in a constructive sense, no fights)

  6. Oh Anand, it is SO EXCITING to meet someone else who loves the subhashita tradition. That is how I got started in all of this! In graduate school, I took several years of Sanskrit and my teacher taught us a lot about the subhashita tradition. She would read them to us every day, and we each had to pick one every week to memorize - she would call on us randomly, you never knew when, to recite. It was so much fun seeing which one each student in the class picked, since we got to pick the ones we liked best. So, I was also teaching Latin at that time, and I decided to collect Latin proverbs to use in teaching. That was about 15 years ago! I do not teach Latin anymore (I teach English composition), and I do not have time for Sanskrit (alas!), but all my Latin proverb projects, and now this distich project, are exactly inspired by the beautiful subhashita tradition in Sanskrit! :-)


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