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Qui primus venerit, primus molet

Original post date: Saturday, March 17, 2007

In English: He who arrives first, will grind first.

I thought that after the previous proverb about the beginning of a task, this would be a good follow-up proverb, praising the person who gets an early start on things. The idea here is that when farmers come to grind their grain, there might be a very long line, but the farmer who comes first, grinds first, saving himself the trouble of standing in line. The English equivalent would be "first come, first served." There's also the great English saying "the early bird catches the worm."

You can find an alternate version of this saying Primus veniens, primus molet, "he (who is) coming first, he will grind first." So, you can use this little saying to get practice in two very nice features of Latin grammar. One version shows the coordination of the future perfect and future tenses: venerit...molet. The other version shows the elegant use of the Latin present active participle in conjunction with a finite verb: veniens...molet.

Note also the use of the adjective, primus, which we usually translate with an adverb in English. The Latin literally says primus molet, "he-the-first will grind," whereas in English we prefer to use an adverb, "he will grind first." Given the weakness of the Latin adverbial system compared to the much more precise adjectival system, you will often find that Latin uses adjectives modifying the subject of the verb rather than an adverb, as we would expect in English.

You can find today's Latin phrase, qui primus venerit, primus molet, cited in Erasmus's Adagia, but it is not the title of an article. Instead, this proverb about the early person arriving at the mill is cited as a parallel proverb under the saying Quasi locum in balneis, "like a place in the bathhouse" (2.10.15). This is a much more elliptical saying, but luckily Erasmus explains: people would come to the bathhouse early, take their places, and there would not be any room for latecomers. So, hoping you will not be last in line for something important to you, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3438. Qui primus venerit, primus molet.

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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