Would anyone be able to tell me what "aut asphodelos aut nullus" means. I've tried automatic translators without success. This is a tag from a 1942 novel by Michel Innes (who went in a lot for that sort of thing).

2 Answers 2


Asphodelus -i (m) appears to be a kind of lily that the Greeks closely associated with death. Specifically, in Greek and English literary use, it references the Elysian meadows (the good place where fallen Heroes go).

I'm not an expert on this subject-- this is where I got the information: https://www.etymonline.com/word/asphodel. It appears to be corroborated by a quick internet search.

This form of asphodel may be the accusative plural in Latin. It might also be the nominative singular in Greek, but I don't know enough Greek to make a definitive guess.

I would translate this phrase as "Either Paradise or Nothing"

  • Thank you so much. That rendering fits perfectly in context. Well done. -- KT
    – user7023
    Jun 4, 2020 at 1:31

Here's some context:

Seemingly nothing much had been done in the matter of Daffodil. And the Chief Constable, who had hard-worked officers to protect, was pretty stiff with Caroline. Not at first: I gather he tried heading her off by explaining some of the jobs he had on hand, and letting her in on a harmless wartime secret or two. But Caroline, who is even more specifically pertinacious than generally curious, held to her theme. It was aut asphodelos aut nullus with her. I believe her motive was quite selfish and practical: Daffodil was the only horse in Harrogate in which she really had confidence, and she was consequently determined that Daffodil should be traced.

The phrase is a reference to Aut Caesar aut nihil, literally "Either Caesar or nothing", liberally "I will settle for nothing less than being the Emperor." In the movie The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940, Charlie Chaplin rendered it Aut Caesar aut nullus (literally "Either Caesar or no one"—not quite the right idea, I think) in this famous scene. There's even a bust of Caesar in the corner of the room.

So, Michael Innes has replaced Caesar with asphodelos. He probably thought it meant "daffodil" in Latin, since it's a borrowing from Greek ἀσφόδελος, which is the root of the English word "daffodil" (via "affodil"). But based on 5 minutes of googling, I gather that Latin asphodelus as well as Greek ἀσφόδελος refer to the asphodel, not the daffodil. ἀσφόδελος is the root of both English words.

There's a third error here: it should be aut asphodelus aut nullus (or better yet, aut asphodelus aut nihil). Asphodelos is in the accusative case and plural; Caesar and nullus are in the nominative. Perhaps Innes was trying to transliterate the Greek straight into Latin.

Anyway, the intended meaning is: "Either Daffodil or nothing!", facetiously likening Caroline's stubborn pursuit of the horse to the overweening political ambition of Julius Caesar and Hitler.

_Asphodelus albus;_ metaphorically, a horse
Asphodelus albus; or, with sufficient poetic license, a horse.

  • 1
    Well, sir, that's impressive on so many levels, not least that you knew just where to find the quote (which, for those who don't know, is in a book called THE DAFFODIL AFFAIR).. i really found your analysis fascinating in its detail. Thanks very much..... I always seem to end up getting an education when I read another Innes, but this is above and beyond
    – user7023
    Jun 4, 2020 at 2:20
  • 1
    This is great. Regarding the third error, my guess is that the "o" is meant to be short, i.e. it's a transliteration of the Greek nominative singular rather than a Latin accusative plural. It's still not quite right (since the word seems to be well assimilated into the Latin second declension), but it's more pardonable.
    – brianpck
    Jun 5, 2020 at 13:09

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