Friday, June 15, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Manus Manum Lavat

This is my forty-fifth "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. I thought a poem about a happily married couple would be a good choice for today! So here is one of the emblems of Rollenhagen:

The emblem has a famous Latin proverb as its title, Manus Manum Lavat.

Manus. This is the Latin word for hand (compare the English word manual).

Manum. This is the word manus in the accusative form, manum, giving us the object of our verb. Now we just need a verb!

Lavat. This is from the Latin verb lavare, meaning to wash (compare the English word lavatory, i.e. the washroom). The form is third-person singular, with manus as the subject: manus lavat, the hand washes. Add the object: manus manum lavat, the hand washes the hand. Or, as we would say in English: one hand washes another.

Here is the poem:

Sic bene convéniunt caro cum cóniuge coniunx,
Cum manus una manum próluit altérius.

And here is how it works:

Sic. This Latin word means thus, in this way (you sometimes see the Latin word sic used in English to indicate something that has been quoted exactly thus as in the original, misspellings included).

bene. This Latin adverb means well, good (and you can see it in many English compounds such as benefactor, benediction, etc.). So, we have an adverb - now we just need a verb.

convéniunt. This is from the Latin verb conveníre, which is a compound: con-, together, and -veníre, to come (as in the English words convention, convenient, etc.). The form is third-person plural: convéniunt, they come together, they match, they fit. We also have an adverb: bene convéniunt, they come together well, they fit nicely. But we still need a subject for the verb!  

caro cum cóniuge. Here we have the Latin preposition cum, which means with, together with (the con- in conveníre is a variant spelling of cum, in fact). As often, the noun phrase that goes with the preposition is wrapped around it: carocóniuge. The noun cóniuge is from Latin coniunx, meaning spouse, partner (compare the English adjective conjugal), and the adjective caro is from Latin carus, meaning dear, precious (this is the origin of the English word caress and also cherish). Put it all together and you have a prepositional phrase: caro cum cóniuge, with a dear spouse. But we are still waiting on a subject for our verb. 

coniunx. And here is our subject: coniunx, the same word we just saw in the prepositional phrase. So it all fits together now: coniunx, spouse, caro cum cóniuge, with beloved spouse, thus fit nicely, sic bene convéniunt. … but just how or when do they fit so nicely? We need the second line of the poem to find out.

Cum. The Latin word cum, in addition to being a preposition that means with, is also a conjunction that means when. In the first line, you saw cum-with, and now in the second line we have cum-when.

manus una. Here we have the Latin word manus again, hand, along with the adjective unus, meaning one (compare the English words unity, unanimous, etc.). The word manus is a feminine noun, hence the feminine form, una, of the adjective: manus una, one hand. The case is nominative, so we know this is the subject of the verb.

manum. This is the accusative form of manus, giving us the object of the verb. Now we just need the verb.

próluit. This is from the Latin verb proluere, meaning to wet, moisten, wash off (you can see the lu- root in English words like dilution, ablution). The form is third-person singular: próluit, (he/she/it) washes. So, that gives us a complete statement: cum manus una, when one hand, manum próluit, washes the hand.

altérius. This is from the Latin word alter, meaning the other, another (compare the English word alteration). The form is genitive singular: altérius, belonging to another, the other's. So that fits perfectly with the two hands, which are now marked out as the hand of one person and the hand of another person: cum manus una, when one hand, manum próluit altérius, washes the other's hand. (For Latin students, you may have memorized the form alterīus, with a long -i- in the ending, but the form altérĭus is one you will also find in Latin poetry, as here.)

So, put it all together and you have a little poem in praise of married life: the two dear spouses (caro cum cóniuge coniunx) can make a perfect fit (sic bene convéniunt) when they take care of one another as one hand that washes the other (cum manus una manum próluit altérius) - just as you can see in Rollenhagen's illustration for the poem, with Cupid presiding!

Sic bene convéniunt caro cum cóniuge coniunx,
Cum manus una manum próluit altérius.

There is a famous edition of Rollenhagen's emblems in English by the 17th-century English poet, George Wither; here are his English lines of verse as inspired by this emblem:

A paire, so match'd; like Hands that wash each other,
As mutuall-helpes, will sweetly live together.

For more of Rollenhagen's poems in Latin, you can visit the Rollenhagen stream in my Latin distichs blog, and as I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog likewise. The next essay is about a quite different couple, Pasiphae and the bull: Pasiphae.


  1. I've just found your blog and I'm loving it. I'm a Brazilian Portuguese native speaker, love Latin and found your blog very interesting for many different modern languages have in common a great deal of Latin in their structures. Congrats and thanks for sharing your knowledge. Looking forward to getting your books =) San

  2. So glad you are enjoying this! I don't have much time to work on Latin anymore, but I have a TON of stuff from years past, and it is fun to be able to share that with people online! :-)

  3. This quote 'Manus Manum Lavat' was used in a recent German TV program. It is a CSI type homocide series called "Tatort" (crime scene), and the main detective threw in this quote as part of a casual conversation with the public prosecutor. Many students do Latin in school, so they can get away with this in a TV series for the general public. Thanks for the full description and interpretation. Now I have to go back and work out why it was used in the context of the conversation...

  4. hi thanks for this. it was really descriptive and very detailed and i love that you also added a poem inspired by the emblem. i've only just started to learn latin by what I can find online and you're translation is really easy to understand.

  5. Source of the Picture:

    Gabriel Rollenhagen / Crispin de Passe, Nucleus Emblematum, Arnheim/Utrecht 1611/1613; II,28

  6. Yes, I have a lot of Rollenhagen emblems here at the blog; it's a beautiful book! More Rollenhagen.


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