In his 1924's "Autobiography", Serbian author Branislav Nušić mocks doctors' habit of speaking Latin in presence of a patient to justify higher fees:

Then they switched to Latin to impress my parents and justify a higher fee:

"Volete ire, collegae, ad bibendum pivae?"
"Ego praeferro ante vesper bibere aquam slivovensem"
"Cum cucurbitis aegris ex aqua"

They were saying it so earnestly and mysteriously that one could really think they were talking about my illness.

(translation mine)

The first two phrases, apparently, mean:

"Would you, colleagues, like to go have some beer?"
"Before evening I prefer to drink šljivovica (plum brandy)"

The third phrase baffles me.

Apparently it refers to some kind of pickled gourd, but I can't figure out what exactly could "cucurbita aegra" mean.

Does this phrase make sense at all, and, if yes, what could it mean?

  • 1
    Great question! It's worth noting that even the first two phrases, though understandable, are garbled Latin. ("Piva" is obviously a poor calque of the Slavic word for beer, "volete" should be "vultis", etc.) The literal translation is "with sick gourds from water," but I can't make much sense of it.
    – brianpck
    Jun 27, 2017 at 21:20
  • 1
    The gourd most often pickled (id est fermented in brine until it develops lactic acid) is the cucumber, often called 'dill cucumbers;' and the tiny cucumbers called gherkins. A cheaper way to preserve them and create the 'sharp' taste is to pasteurise them in vinegar (French aigre =sick wine).
    – Hugh
    Jun 27, 2017 at 23:05
  • @Hugh: isn't "aigre" from "acer" ("sour")? On the other hand, this makes sense, as the doctors were apparently not the best Latin speakers out there and could have back-formed the term incorrectly indeed. Anyway, good catch!
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 28, 2017 at 4:09
  • I read the book in my native Bulgarian (long ago) and the third doctor's sentence was translated to a complete (intentional) nonsense involving pumpkins. 30 years later, it makes sense pretty much.
    – fraxinus
    May 17, 2021 at 10:03
  • @fraxinus: I've read it in Russian, also some 30 years ago (although I purchased the book in a Bulgarian book store in Velingrad). In the Russian translation, it said бессмысленный набор слов (букв. "с плохими тыквами из воды")
    – Quassnoi
    May 17, 2021 at 11:33

1 Answer 1


Before the food industry tried to hide these things from us, everyone knew that food could be improved with bacteria.
Yoghurt with Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus
Cheese with, for example, Penicillium roqueforti
Sourdough bread with Lactobacillus plantarum

The process known a brine fermentation, where food is kept very warm in salt water, to allow anaerobic bacteria to develop was best known to Roman cooks for Garum. In it's present day version, colatura di alici or Anchovy Sauce, solar salt and smallfish, at 30degrees C.
generate beneficial Tetragenococcus, immersed in 12-20% brine for 30 days.

The process is used to pickle a variety of food, including olives, sauerkraut, kimchi, picallillis, and cucurbitae. The flavour is soured, and the food is preserved from mould, by bacteria which produce lactic acid. Vine leaves or oak leaves keep the pickles crisp. Herbs and spice add flavour.

The gourd most often pickled is the cucumber, sold as 'dill cucumbers;' and the tiny cucumbers called gherkins, or cornichons. The fermentation in brine creates the right conditions for Lactobacillus plantarum, and L. brevis to preserve the pickles so long as they are covered (anaerobic) by the brine. Aeger, fermented not infected, relates to the bacteria, which the doctors would have known were present in the brine.

So, "Cum cucurbitis aegris ex aqua" means 'With pickled cornichons straight from the brine.'

  • 1
    Pickled cornichons go well with plum brandy and are traditionally consumed together in Serbia and around.
    – fraxinus
    May 17, 2021 at 12:13

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