The first occurrence of "Delphinum natare doces" I could find is in Erasmus' Adagia, after year 1500. Due to the nature of this book, the proverb itself must be much older than that.

Where and when does it originate from ?

  • NB : My goal is to find a relevant flag or symbol which could be associated to the proverb in order to identify the culture from which it comes, for a children book. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Sep 8 '16 at 14:16
  • If you are looking for a Latin quote, is this any use?: 'Faster than asparagus cooks.' velocius quam asparagi coquuntur.' Lit: 'Faster than Asparagusses are being cooked;' the plural and passive prevent this being read as Faster than asparagus sprouts; metaph. use *coquo. – Hugh Sep 9 '16 at 12:33
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    @Hugh Thanks, but actually the constraint is not on being in Latin, but on involving a dolphin. Therefore for my project I'll just switch to Greek. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Sep 9 '16 at 14:57

The Adagia of Erasmus was a compilation of Latin and Greek proverbs. This particular proverb (XCVII) is a translation from the Greek, as the entry makes clear. (I am using the 1703 Opera Omnia edition available on Google Books):

Δέλφῖνα νήχεσθαι διδάσκεις, id est Delphinum natare doces. In eos competit, qui monere quempiam conantur in ea re, in qua cum sit ipse exercitatissimus, nihil eget doctore. Nam delphinus in natando pernicissimi impetus est, ita vt non modo superet omne natatilium genus velocitate, verumetiam terrestrium animantium vt autor Aelianus libro xii. Quin et naues transilit seque contento spiritu teli in morem eiaculatur.

This online edition includes the following footnote from a German edition, indicating that it is found in the collections of Zenobius (AD 117-138) and Diogenianus:

491 Δελφῖνα νήχεσθαι διδάσκεις Dieses Proverb findet sich bei den Paroemiographen: Zenob. 3, 30 = Ald. col. 67-68. Diogen. 4, 33. Suid. δελφῖνα 212 (cf. Adag. 393, n.l. 468). Diogen. 1, 65 (cf. Adag. 398, n.l. 498). Apost. 5, 96. Cf. Zenob. Ald. col. 68: Δελφῖνα νήχεσθαι παιδεύεις.

The very similar adage piscem natare doces (XIX) is explicitly attributed by Erasmus to Diogenianus (see the 1703 edition), so this strikes me as plausible.

Given that these Greek sources were compiled so long ago, I do not think it would be easy to trace the phrase further than this.

  • Thanks. As far as I'm concerned, there is no need to trace it further, and anyway it would be off-topic since latin is not relevant anymore. – Skippy le Grand Gourou Sep 9 '16 at 8:02

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