Nihil novum sub sole

The Roman adage “Nihil novum sub sole” can be translated “[No hay] nada nuevo bajo el sol” and “[There is] nothing new under the sun.” Because all earthly life is “under the sun”—and, scientists would now add, depends in one way or another on the energy received from the sun—the phrase sub sole meant ‘everywhere on earth’; and because the earth was the only world the ancients knew, the Latin adage as a whole meant that there is nothing new anywhere in the world. (Writers have their own corollary about literature: If it’s good it isn’t new, and if it’s new it isn’t good.)

After the sun, the next most conspicuous celestial object in our earthly corner of the world, and the brightest in the night sky, is the moon, as I not so coincidentally mentioned in yesterday’s posting about luna. From luna came the Late Latin adjective sublunaris, which we’ve borrowed as sublunar/sublunary (with English sometimes using sublunar as well). Noah Webster explained in 1828 that the word means ‘literally, beneath the moon, but sublunary, which is the [form of the] word chiefly used, denotes merely terrestrial, earthly, pertaining to this world.’ The example he gave was “All things sublunary are subject to change.”

Though the French general Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval in the late 1700s and the American inventor Eli Whitney in the early 1800s were early modern advocates for using interchangeable parts in manufacturing, we can’t help noticing that the Romans beat them to it with the sun and the moon: the moon meant the same thing in sublunaris as the sun did in sub sole. The earth has circled the sun a couple of thousand times since then; here we are in a world increasingly mechanized and computerized, but if we back up about half a century we find Peruvian poet Carlos Germán Belli writing a poem that he called, blending the modern with the ancient, “Robot sublunar.”

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: A little more on luna « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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