Watchwords - it’s later than you think

June 2018

Watchwords - it's later than you think

I became aware that sundial mottos were a thing earlier this year, listening to the wonderful and disturbing podcast S-Town.


he hero, if you can call him that, of this documentary series, John B. McLemore, is an antiquarian horologist – a clock repairer and restorer, who, it is mentioned in one episode, took almost thirty years to handcraft a sundial for his old chemistry professor, calibrated to the exact latitude of his house.

The earliest known sundial is from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and dates from ca. 1500 BC. But it was probably around AD 1500 that sundials began to be inscribed with mottos. Some are in the local language, but many are in Latin, taken from the Bible or from classical texts, or perhaps just translated into Latin to lend them more gravitas. What’s different, and fascinating, about these sundial mottos, compared with the maxims of ancient families or venerable institutions, is their tone. Rather than being pious and sanctimonious, they are often cynical, world-weary and nihilistic. They also show that people have been worrying about roughly the same kinds of things for a very long time.

Many of them are familiar: sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world), tempus fugit (time flies) and carpe diem (seize the day). Some manage to condense a similar sentiment into a catchy if depressing little nugget: ita vita (thus is life), sumus fumus (we are smoke) or festina mox nox (hurry, the night comes). One episode of S-Town is entitled “Tedious and brief”, which is another way of putting it.

Some of these mottos could have been designed to warn about ill-advised Facebook posts: post voluptatem misericordia (after pleasure comes pain) and pereunt & imputantur (the hours vanish, yet remain on record). There’s also a caution for those who spend too much time on social media in general: bulla est vita humana (the life of man is a bubble).

Clearly, mediaeval peasants were as familiar as we are with the dangers of distraction and the evils of procrastination. Latin lends itself to shouty exhortations to stop messing about and get on with it, like an Old Testament prophet or, perhaps, your mum: mora trahit periculum (delay brings danger), aut disce, aut discede (either learn or go), and aspiciendo senesces (thou growest old in looking). One of my favourites, in the Languedoc dialect, goes: “Arresto ti passant, regardo quantes d’ouro, et fouto mi lou camp,” which roughly translates as: “Stop a moment, traveller, look at the time, and then piss off”!

But sometimes you just have to stop worrying, relax and enjoy the ride. Festina lente (make haste slowly) is a rather Zen approach to passing time. Another is Autant boire ici qu’ailleurs – here is as good a place as any to have a drink. Cheers!