7

This is about the core meaning of desinat in piscem as in:

Humano capiti ceruicem pictor equinam
iungere si uelit et uarias inducere plumas
undique collatis membris, ut turpiter atrum
desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne,
spectatum admissi, risum teneatis, amici?

[Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace), The Art of Poetry: an Epistle to the Pisos]

Of course I understand desino/ere is a transitive verb meaning to end (in) and there's the preposition in and the accusative piscem, literally (I'm guessing) end in fish.1 I would describe the image the author crafts as an example of a type mismatch of sorts but this is not the point. The Gaffiot Dictionary also refers to Virg. En 10, 211; Sen. Ep. 92, 10; 66, 43 for the expression.

As far as fish are concerned, they don't necessarily strike as beautiful-looking creatures (but then again it's all a matter of perspective). There's also morphology, which might vary depending on where one lives, and often the fish is wider in the middle and ends with a smaller section before the tail, so there's a contrasting element. Otherwise I'm not clear on the eating habits of the classical authors (and it's off topic) but more importantly I'm not clear on the references they might have about fish and how this translates into Latin, into this desinat in piscem.


  • In Horace's, Seneca's, and Virgil's Latin, does desinat in piscem refer to the end/tail/shape of the fish, or rather its looks ? Is that some figurative use for some bad omen or a non sequitur, or just plain bad taste or what exactly? How and why are they using this?
  • Is there more to be said about the use/analysis of in piscem generally, or with other verbs; anything peculiar I should know about the construction in + animal name (acc.), is that a significant construction in Latin; does that provide further insight about Horace's quote and if so, how?

1 It is said (DHLF/Rey) that in French, finir en queue de poisson (lit. to end as/like the tail of the fish) coined by Honoré de Balzac (1833) is inspired by Horace's desinat in piscem; some French translations of Horace's text even refer to the fish tail per se. It goes without saying that the sentence desinat in piscem doesn't contain the word tail; but that doesn't really mean anything.

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    Welcome to the site! I made minor edits to your question, but feel free to undo them. I hope my answer is at least somewhat in the direction you wanted. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 12 '16 at 5:00
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Thank you for the welcome and the edit! It is, but I had read the Perseus translation, but consider the one on Gutenberg, it seems to struggle and mentions a filthy tail. I'm trying to keep this as far as possible from translation and really about differentiating between morphology and the beauty of the face of the fish. I prefer the Perseus translation but I lack the expertise to really appreciate. I also haven't looked at the Virgil or Seneca text, it's mostly beyond me to try to figure out a pattern in it. – user425 Sep 12 '16 at 5:11
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    Vergil and Seneca don't actually use the phrase desinat in piscem -- they use desino in with other objects, which the Gaffiot dictionary considers a similar usage to Horace's. – TKR Sep 12 '16 at 21:03
  • @TKR Do any of those uses involve an animal, a shape or appearance? Don't hesitate to provide an answer formally excluding the 2 other authors for the reason you mention and expanding on the use of the verb desino per se. Thanks! – user425 Sep 13 '16 at 5:44
5

Horatius describes a "combined animal" with human's head, horse's neck, bird's feathers and fish's rear end. This creature ends in a fish: instead of legs it presumably has a fishtail. No details of the fish are given; just that the creature contains a fish-like part.

The translation available at Perseus (the Latin version is there, too) puts it like this:

If a painter should wish to unite a horse's neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs taken from every part, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight?
(Horace. The Works of Horace. C. Smart. Theodore Alois Buckley. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1863.)

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    @Faʁdɔʃɔtɔmatabaʁwɛt, I don't know of other uses of in piscem. It strikes me as an unusual construction, but a valid one. I suppose Horatius could have written "ends like a fish" or "has the behind of a fish" instead of "ends in a fish", but my Latin is not strong enough to judge what would be the most natural expression for this situation. (Frankly, I don't have a strong opinion of that in any language.) I have no preference for one translation over the other. Each has its merits. I hope to find the time to look into Vergilius and Seneca for comparison later on. – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 12 '16 at 5:24

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