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Cibus non qui plurimus, sed qui suavissimus

Original post date: Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In English: Food: not the largest quantity but the most pleasant.

The link between today's proverb and yesterday's saying is the word plurimus. This word is the superlative form of multus, working in tandem in today's saying with suavissimus, the superlative of suavis. I guess you could call this the opposite of "supersize me" in Latin, the idea being to eat not as much as possible, but rather to eat as well as possible.

The Latin adjective suavis is etymologically related to the English word "sweet." You can see that it is a quite productive root in Latin, found in various compounds such as suaviloquens, "sweet-speaking," suaveolens, "sweet-smelling," and so on. It is also the root lurking in the verb suadere, meaning "to recommend," in other words, "to make sweet" for someone. There is then a whole series of nouns and adjectives derived from this verbal root, such as suadela, "persuasion," suadus, "persuasive," and so on.

In English, we end up with the elegant word "suave," which entered our language during the Renaissance. Originally, English "suave" meant sweet or tasty, much as in today's Latin saying about food. The OED offers this delightful citation from Charlotte Bronte in 1849: To whom the husky oat-cake was from custom suave as manna (I'm actually a big fan of oat-cakes myself!).

Later on, the English word "suave" came to mean something more like sophisticated or urbane, pleasantly agreeable. There's a quite interesting citation in the OED for this meaning as well - it's W.E.B. DuBois writing in The Souls of Black Folk, "We cannot settle this problem by diplomacy and suaveness." In other words, some tough talk rather than mere pleasantries, will be required to tangle with the problem of racism in America.

So, just as in the range of Latin words from suavis to suadela, the range of usage in the English "suave" shows that sometimes sweetness is a matter of taste, and sometimes a matter of temperament.

So, hoping you had a most suavis supper this evening, here is today's proverb read out loud:

924. Cibus non qui plurimus, sed qui suavissimus.

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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