Scholarly Note:
30 April 2019

¶ Yesterday, I broke down and ordered a new copy of Cassell’s Latin dictionary. The old copy had fallen from a stack of dictionaries precariously piled on a stool, and the front cover partially tore away from the book. (The spine was already a disgrace.) I’ve had it since college, when the Cassell’s dictionaries came in a uniform black cloth binding with gold lettering and gold doodads — just what a smart reference work ought to look like. The current edition wears a butterscotch color. I have already replaced my Cassell’s Italian dictionary (essential because it identifies the words that are pronounced sdrucciolo, with the accent on the antepenultimate syllable). That one, of course, is covered in green.

Tucked in the Latin dictionary was a slip of legal-pad paper, with a phrase on it that I was trying, more than thirty years ago for sure, to translate. (You must bear in mind that the academic achievement of which I was most fiercely proud in my schooldays was having avoided the macho reek of Caesar by never submitting to Latin classes. Now, of course, it is one of my simplest, deepest regrets.) I remembered exactly where I encountered it: on the inner dome of the old Cunard Building on Lower Broadway, which by my day had become a branch of the Post Office. One afternoon, waiting in line to buy stamps, I looked up and saw

Existimat enim ove mare teneat eum necesse rerum potiri.

I was curious: did ove mean “sheep” or “eggs”? Neither word seemed particularly apt in the setting. My research got no further than indicating the ablative singular of ovis, sheep. Say what? And I couldn’t find potiri in the Cassell’s. Still can’t; it isn’t given, as the present infinitive of potior, “to be master of.” Thwarted by not one word but two, I gave up. Somehow, the slip of paper remained. 

There was no Google then. Now there is. I typed in the entire phrase, and immediately had it traced for me to Cicero, who attributed the thought to Themistocles. 

He holds that the master of the sea must inevitably be master of the empire.

Okay, I can see that. (It certainly suited Cunard.) But where does ove come in? (Google also solved the potiri mystery.) Maybe you know. 


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