The One-Eyed Man Is King

My first real job was a software developer in a start-up that built massively-parallel supercomputers; the machines had up to 16K processors and handled very large datasets. While the company was staffed with seasoned hardware types, many of us software developers were relatively inexperienced.  Not wanting to admit our greenness, we usually tried to solve problems on our own rather than asking the more senior staff.

One newbie was a little more experienced than the rest and, when bestowing his opinion on us, would invariably exclaim:

In regione caecorum rex est luscus

If you’re not classically trained in Latin, this phrase roughly translates to “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”  While he barely knew more than we did, the knowledge made him king.

The quote comes from the Adagia (III, IV, 96), an annotated collection of proverbs compiled by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus during the Renaissance.  By his death in 1536, Erasmus had documented nearly 5,000 proverbs including many colorful ones that are still used in English today:

  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence
  • Can’t teach an old dog new tricks
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • To call a spade a spade
  • There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip

Erasmus was a prolific writer, even though most of his output didn’t happen until he mastered Latin late in life.  Beyond the Adagia, his best-known work is “The Praise of Folly”, a satire of popular superstitions and the Catholic Church.  Erasmus is also responsible for the first published Greek translation of the New Testament which was later used as the primary source material for the Church of England’s authoritative King James Version of the Bible.  Neither endeared him to the Catholic Church but his writings were extraordinary popular.  According to some accounts, Erasmus accounted for 10-20% of all book sales in the 1530’s.

It’s unlikely that any modern day author could ever reach that level but, for all of you struggling writers out there, don’t worry.  As Erasmus himself might have said, every dog has its day.

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One Response to The One-Eyed Man Is King

  1. Jonathan December 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

    An earlier version of this post claimed that Erasmus published the first Greek AND Latin translations of the New Testament. Craig (https://github.com/cschamp) pointed out that Jerome created a Latin version as early as the 5th century and there may have even been some in Old Latin in the 2nd century. The post has been modified to only give credit to Erasmus for the Greek translation.

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