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Bos currum trahit, non bovem currus

Original post date: Thursday, January 10, 2008

In English: The ox pulls the cart, not the cart the ox.

I thought this would be a fun proverb to do today, since the fable of the day today is also about a cart (although it's a different story - the squeaky wheel wanting the grease). Today's proverb is one that is best known in English as "putting the cart before the horse" - something that the Latin proverb plainly tells you will not work!

There are many variations on the Latin saying. The version I have given here comes from Manutius's additions to Erasmus's Adagia. Another version is Currus bovem trahit, "The cart is pulling the ox," or Plaustrum bovem trahit, "The plow is pulling the ox," which is to say that something ridiculous is going on!

The form Plaustrum bovem trahit is the verison which appears in Erasmus's Adagia. Here are Erasmus's own comments on the saying: De re, quae praepostere geritur. Veluti, si uxor praescribat marito, si discipulus reprehendat praeceptorem, si populus imperet principi, si ratio pareat affectui, "This saying is used about something which is being done backwards-forwards, as if a wife were to give orders to her husband, or a student were to correct his teacher, or if the people were to command their ruler, or if reason were to obey emotions."

Erasmus's comments here are very revealing, aren't they? I am used to seeing this proverb applied to very obviously impractical situations: you are putting the cart in front of the ox when you build a new sports stadium before a team has even agreed to play there (if you build it, they will not necessarily come!). Erasmus, though, lists a whole series of situations that are not inherently absurd, but which are absurd based on the values of a particular society. Every single one of the examples he has listed here are things that we really do not consider preposterous at all these days: wives often do make decisions for their husbands, students are encouraged to correct their teachers when their teachers are wrong, the people are supposed to participate in their own governance, and as latter-day Romantics we often seek to involve the element of emotion, in addition to the claims of reason.

So, hoping anyway that your life is not too backwards-forwards or topsy-turvy at the moment, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1907. Bos currum trahit, non bovem currus.

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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