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Fabula, sed vera

Original post date: Saturday, January 13, 2007

In English: A story, but a true one.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, Publica fama non semper vana, "Common gossip is not always groundless." Today's proverb is an actual defense of something so outrageous that it might sound like a made-up story, when in fact the teller wants to insist that the story is true. A fuller form of the proverb is Non ficta fabula, sed vera historia, "Not a made-up story, but a true account."

In a lovely play on words, this Latin saying is also the motto of the Storey family. (There are actually many family mottoes which are based on this kind of word-play between the family's name in English and the contents of their Latin motto.)

I thought this would be a good opportunity to say something about the fabulous (!) linguistic fortune of the Latin word fabula. The word means simply "story" in Latin, and it gives us many English words, such as "fable," but also "fabulous." Today people use "fabulous" simply to mean something "good, great, excellent," but originally it meant something celebrated in myth or legend, as in this 1601 translation of Pliny by Philemon Holland, where he refers to "Atlas, the most fabulous mountaine of all Africke."

More important, in the Romance languages, the late Latin word fabulare, "to tell stories, to narrate," came to have a more and more general meaning until it became the standard verb of speaking, as in Spanish hablar, which is directly descended from Latin fabulare, as is the Portuguese falar. The Greek word parabola, "parable," gave rise to a similar late Latin word, parabolare, also meaning "to tell stories," and this in turn gave rise to the Italian parlare and French parler. The poor Latin loquor did not have much of a future at all, compared to the fortunes of fabulare and parabolare.

In short, as the history of the words themselves can prove, telling stories is what speaking is all about, fundamentally. So, with a salute to the word fabula, here is today's proverb read out loud:

17. Fabula, sed vera.

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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