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Aqua turbida piscosior est

Original post date: Monday, May 07, 2007

In English: Stirred-up water is more full of fish.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, which was also about water and fish. Today's proverb is attested in medieval sources, and there's even a rhyming version (rhyme was especially favored by medieval Latin writers) which reads as follows: Flumen confusum reddit piscantibus usum, "A stirred up stream yields advantages for people fishing."

The English equivalent is "fishing in troubled waters," and you can read this account of fishing in an English text from 1509 that describes the practice: "Lyke as fysshers do whan they be aboute to cause fysshe to come into theyr nettes or other engyns, they trouble the waters to make them avoyde and flee from theyr wonte places."

Yet the proverb is not meant to provide instruction about fishing; instead, it has a metaphorical application to the world of human affairs, as Erasmus explains in his commentary on a similar proverb (piscatur in aqua turbida, "he fishes in troubled water"): De eo, qui, dum alii inter se rixatur, ipse sibi et suis commodis consulit, "This is about someone who, while others are quarreling amongst themselves, is able to provide for himself and his own interests."

So, the idea is that if you can get others worked up into a frenzy about something, in the midst of the confusion you can slip in and take care of your own business, unnoticed in the chaos.

There's an Aesop's fable that employs this same motif, although for rather different purposes, as you can see here: A fisherman was fishing in a river. He stretched out his nets and covered the river's stream from one side to the other. He then tied a stone to a piece of rope and struck the water with it so that the fish would flee and fall unwittingly into the net. Someone who lived in that neighborhood saw what the man was doing and began to complain, because by agitating the water in this way he deprived them of clear water to drink. The fisherman answered, "But if I do not disturb the river, I will have no choice but to die of hunger!"

So, in this fable, the contrast is between the people who for their own reasons want the world to be thrown into chaos (the fisherman muddying the waters), and people who for their own reasons want things to be left alone (the people drinking from the stream). It's better fishing in muddy waters, as today's fable tells us... but it's not just the fish who might suffer as a result! You could call this a kind of environmental fable - people like their insanely plump chicken breasts, but all kinds of hormones are ending up in the environment as a result!

So, keeping in mind the literal and metaphorical waters which we share in common, here is today's proverb read out loud:

680. Aqua turbida piscosior est.

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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