History and Literature | Latin Words and Grammar

Lupus in Fabula: How to Speak of the Devil in Latin

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In the Roman play­wright Terence’s play Adelphoe, writ­ten c:a 160 B.C., two of the char­ac­ters, Syrus and Cte­sipho, are speak­ing when Syrus blurts out:

— Em tibi autem!
— Quid­namst?
— Lupus in fab­u­la.
— Pater est?
— Ipsust.

— Ter­ence, Adelphoe 535–539

i.e.

— But look!
— What is it?
— Talk of the dev­il!
— It’s my father?
— In person.

    (Transl. Bars­by, 2001)

Adelphoe with Cte­sipho and Syrur from Ter­ence’s Come­dies, St Albans Abbey, mid 12th century

Ter­ence makes it rather clear to us in just these few lines what the proverb Lupus in fab­u­la, i.e. lit­er­al­ly “The wolf in the sto­ry”, means and pro­vides clues as to how to use it:

When you speak of some­one or some­thing and they or it sud­den­ly appears, almost as if you were call­ing or sum­mon­ing them, this proverb is perfect.

An Eng­lish equiv­a­lent would be to Speak, or talk, of the Dev­il, and you use the Latin ver­sion in just the same way.

Varro The Wolf

How­ev­er, we not only find Lupus in fab­u­la in Terence’s, but also in the Roman ora­tor and states­man Cicero’s work. In a let­ter to Atti­cus writ­ten in Tus­cu­lum the 9th of July 45 B.C., Cicero tells Atti­cus about Var­ro, who had swung by Cicero’s house:

“De Var­rone loque­ba­mur: lupus in fab­u­la, ven­it enim ad me et qui­dem id tem­po­ris ut reti­nen­dus esset.”

— Cicero, Att. 13.33a.1

i.e. ”We were speak­ing of Var­ro: Talk of the dev­il! He called (i.e. vis­it­ed), and at such an hour that I had to ask him to stay.” (transl. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley, 1999)

As men­tioned, in Eng­lish you can say speak of the Dev­il or talk of the Dev­il. Two ver­sions of one proverb, that ulti­mate­ly mean the same thing. For Latin, it is the same.

Cicero at his desk writ­ing Epis­tu­lae Ad Famil­iares, wood­cut from 1547.

Wolf Version

While Cicero and Ter­ence used Lupus in fab­u­la, “the wolf in the sto­ry”, Plau­tus (c:a 254–184 B.C.) had his own ver­sion. In his play Stichus the char­ac­ter Epig­no­mus says to Pampi­la, just as Gelasimus enters the stage:

“Atque eccum tibi lupum in sermone”

— Plau­tus, Stichus, 577

i.e. “And look, here you have the wolf in the fable (lit. “in the con­ver­sa­tion”).” (transl. Melo, 2013)

Down­load a pdf and a recording Get an audio file and a print-ready PDF of Cicero’s let­ter to Atti­cus in which he uses the proverb “Lupus in fab­u­la”. Click Here.

Dogs, Donkeys And Devils

This proverb, to speak of some­one as a way of sum­mon­ing them or per­haps as a warn­ing of keep­ing your tongue, is found in dif­fer­ent ver­sions all around the world. Some speak of dogs, cats or wolves, oth­er proverbs of don­keys, dev­ils or tigers, and yet oth­ers of kings, lions and trolls.

Usu­al­ly the proverbs are split in two with only the first half used, such as with the Eng­lish ver­sions (there are several):

  • Speak of the dev­il (and he is at your tail)
  • Speak of the dev­il (and he shall appear)
  • Speak of the dev­il and he’s present­ly at your elbow, etc.

The French do the same but derive their proverb from the Latin with their Quand on par­le du loup, (on en voit sa queue), i.e. “When one speaks of the wolf, (one sees its tail).”

The Swedes are a bit more super­sti­tious and instead uses trolls: När man talar om trollen, så står de i farstun, i.e. ”When you speak of the trolls, they’re in your hall­way.” The sec­ond half is rarely used.

The Dan­ish and Nor­weigians are per­haps the most opti­mistic as they say: Når man taler om solen, så skin­ner den/Når man snakker om sola, så skin­ner’n, which trans­lates to “When you speak of the sun, it shines.”

Lupus In Fab­u­la In Oth­er Languages?

Dan­sk: Når man taler om solen, så skin­ner den.

Deutsch: Wenn man vom Teufel spricht, kommt er gegangen.

Español: Hablan­do del rey de Roma, por la puer­ta asoma!

Français: Quand on par­le du loup, (on en voit sa queue).

Ital­iano: Lupo in favola.

Norsk: Når man snakker om sola, så skinner’n.

Sven­s­ka: När man talar om trollen (så står de i farstun).

Por­tuguês: Falan­do no dia­bo, aparece o rabo.


References

  • Ter­ence. Phormio. The Moth­er-in-Law. The Broth­ers.Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by John Bars­by. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 23. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001.
  • Cicero. Let­ters to Atti­cus, Vol­ume IV. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by D. R. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 491. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999.
  • Plau­tus. Stichus. Trinum­mus. Tru­cu­len­tus. Tale of a Trav­el­ling Bag. Frag­ments. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by Wolf­gang de Melo. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 328. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013.

If you like proverbs with wolves, you can learn more about what hold­ing a wolf by the ears mean in Latin here


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Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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