Sunday, May 01, 2005


A Mangled Quotation

Robert Hendrickson, QPB Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd edition (New York: Facts on File, 2004), p. 243, discusses the origins of e pluribus unum and gives as one (unlikely) possibility
an essay by Richard Steele in The Spectator (August 20, 1711), which opens with the Latin phrase Exempta juvat spiris e pluribus unus ("Better one thorn plucked than all remain").
Hendrickson erred with spiris and unus, which should be spinis and una. Steele quoted the phrase correctly from Horace, Epistles 2.2.212:
Exempta juvat spinis e pluribus una.
But even Steele left out a couple of words. Horace wrote:
quid te exempta juvat spinis e pluribus una?
When we add back the missing words, the phrase means "How does one thorn removed out of so many help you?" which is very different from "Better one thorn plucked than all remain."

The only critical edition of Horace on my bookshelf (by Wickham and Garrod for the Oxford Classical Texts series) gives a slightly different version of the line:
quid te exempta iuvat spinis de pluribus una?
Note the substitution of the preposition de for e (with no variant mentioned in the critical apparatus).

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