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Morborum medicus omnium mors ultimus

Original post date: Sunday, April 22, 2007

In English: The last doctor of every disease is death.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to the sayings about doctors I've covered in the past couple of days. Today's saying has a very intricate word order which is a bit unusual for Latin proverbs, so it's worth mapping it out - paying careful attention to the word endings, and also the word order, which accounts for much of the proverb's effect:

morborum: genitive plural, "of diseases." This gives us a kind of topic for the saying, and now we are waiting for a noun to govern this genitive.

medicus: nominative singular, "doctor." This gives us the noun we wanted, although no clear meaning has really emerged yet: "the doctor of diseases" is what we have so far.

omnium: genitive plural, "all, every." The case and number agree with diseases, yielding: "the doctor of all diseases" or "the doctor of every disease."

mors: nominative singular, "death." This gives us the key to the grammatical structure of the sentence: if there are two nominative nouns, they need to have a subject-predicate relationship to one another, which gives us a complete sentence: "The doctor of every disease is death."

ultimus: nominative singular, "ultimate, final, last." The gender - masculine - gives us the clue which noun is it modifying: "The last doctor of every disease is death."

English cannot save the surprise ultimus for the end of the sentence, which is exactly what happens in the Latin saying. Latin here uses its amazing flexibility of word order as a way to convey meaning. The displacement of ultimus to the end of the sentence is a surprise punch, giving an overwhelming emphasis to the particular quality of "Dr. Death." Sure, there are plenty of doctors, and someone who is really ill might see doctor after doctor after doctor. There are many doctors, indeed, but the ultimus medicus for every disease, for the disease of life itself you might say, is death.

Of course, our knowledge of the inevitability of death is matched only by our resolute denial of this fact. The Latin phrase memento mori, "remember (that you are going) to die" is a bit of wisdom we should probably be more grateful for than we normally are.

Just last night we watched that most amazing movie, The Green Mile. I won't give away the ending of the movie if you have not seen it (and if you have not seen it, you should!), but of the many lessons in that movie, there is one very wise lesson about length of life and time of death. It's a movie very much worth watching... or watching again, if you have not seen it in a while.

In fact, The Green Mile contains one of Michael Jeter's best performances... Michael Jeter who has since met up with that last doctor. He died in 2003 just after having completed the film Open Range (another great movie!). Requiescat in pace, Michael Jeter... he left us so many fine films.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

522. Morborum medicus omnium mors ultimus.

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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