8

I was surprised to see that several (Hungarian) sources claim that De mortuis nihil nisi bonum is an incorrect version of De mortuis nil nisi bene, but I could find nothing supporting this theory in English. Can anyone shed some more light on the origin of these related proverbs? Here is the related Wikipedia entry.

Added later: The Hungarian sources claim that there's a very significant semantic difference, as De mortuis nil nisi bene should be interpreted as one should not make false claims about the deceased, i.e., also reveal the unpleasant truth. This is the exact opposite of De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

2
  • 1
    Related, unanswered question: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1249/…
    – Rafael
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 12:36
  • The Hungarian claims in your 2nd paragraph are wrong. It doesn't have that meaning at all.
    – cmw
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 21:18

4 Answers 4

2

I think if we are to trust the mentioned WP article (permanent link to current version) at least in its most general claims, the answer is there. The article itself is poorly sourced, though.

It seems that both bene and bonum versions coexist as widely accepted (27K and 23K results in Google, respectively).

The original is in Greek: τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (as pointed by Vincenzo) attributed to Chilon of Sparta by ca. 600 BC and attested in the III century AD. Note that it is formulated in negative: don't criticize, revile, lit. speak bad/evil. Even if we don't trust the claim that this is the first appearance of the aphorism, it is a fact that it was written in Antiquity. You can see the original Greek source transcribed here.

Note that the Greek κακός means bad, may mean ugly, but NOT wrong or false. κακολογεῖν, in turn, means to criticize rather than to lie. This, IMO, settles the point. The burden of proof, then, lies upon those claiming the false sense.

The first attested translation to Latin (according to WP) uses bonum and dates from 1433. One can doubt the fact it was the first, but whether the sentence was written there 585 years ago is something one can verify.

Note that even the bene version, de mortuis nil nisi bene dicendum is ambiguous and doesn't rule out the speak good things interpretation.


No one asked, but I think it is good to distinguish. Many people (me included, I think) tend to unconsciously idealize the Classics and identify quotes with directives of what is right to do. That could lead some to reinterpret what was written so that the aphorism actually matches what they think is right. I think the so-to-say Hungarian interpretation could be an example of that.

Now, there is a subtle but substantive difference between avoiding/being less prone to tell uncomfortable truths about someone, and actively telling false good things about them. And I think that point is far from addressed by any of the sentences, or even both mainstream interpretations.

5

I had 6 years of Latin in an Austrian high school. The only version of this I ever knew was "de mortuis nihil nisi bene". So it seems there was some consensus in the Latin curriculum of my time (1970s).

3

I cannot comment on the origin of the two versions of the proverbs, but perhaps a grammatical comparison can be useful, too.

The word bene is the adverb "well" derived from the adjective bonus, "good". With this word the proverb recommends to speak only well of the deceased.

The word bonum is the singular neuter form of bonus. When "good" refers to something (as opposed to someone) but not any specific noun in particular, this is a good choice. It could also be seen as a substantivized adjective, a noun meaning "good thing". With this word the proverb recommends to speak only good things of the deceased.

There is no real semantic difference between the two. From a grammatical point of view I wouldn't call either one of them wrong. But it is possible that one of them is a misquote of the other.

0
2

Your addendum might be on point, but in fact it would only make it more likely that the correct version is De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Both Italian and English sources I have gone through, always abide by the fact that the proverb is used to state "the dead cannot defend themselves, and thus must be respected in any case". Indeed this agrees with the Roman pietas and the Greek eusebeia.

The original Greek phrase is τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν, which seems to carry this very meaning.

1
  • The problem is that the Hungarian "sources" are wrong about the grammar. There's nothing in either phrase that would indicate that one is about lying.
    – cmw
    Commented Oct 21, 2023 at 21:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.