An apple poem for spring (very short, quite old, and somewhat odd)

Just finishing up my spring planting and transplanting, and to celebrate I thought I would share an old poem/proverb/wordplay about apples. According to my grandmother, it was something that her father was fond of reciting. Which wouldn’t take long, because it’s only one line, although it is in Latin. Here it is:

Malo malo malo malo malo.

And here’s the translation as my grandmother taught it to me. (Because of the way Latin works, something that looks like the same word can actually have a bunch of different meanings.)

I would rather be
An apple
In an apple tree
Than a wicked man
In adversity.

For a long time I assumed that being an apple symbolized a state of fruitful simplicity and tranquility, in contrast with the tangled and self-entrapping webs woven by human wickedness. But since coming here, I’ve learned that apples are subject to considerable trials and tribulations: scabs and rusts and maggots and borers and bitter pit and fire blight and I could go on but I won’t…

So, while I wouldn’t discard the first interpretation entirely, I’ve come to think that it’s only part of the story. Here’s a second interpretation, then: to be an apple may be to be the proverbial lamb in the lion’s den of microbial and variously verminous adversaries, but it’s still better than being a bad man who’s gotten himself into a bad spot.

Happy spring, and may we all be surrounded with apples and not with adversity!

PS: For anyone who happens to be curious or wants to check my work: “Malo” in line 1 is the first person singular form of the verb “malle”, to prefer. “Malo” in line 2 is the dative singular of the noun “malum”, an apple. The verb “malle” is said to “take” the dative, that is, it requires that its object be in the dative case. (“Malum” was also used in referring to other kinds of fruit. The Latin for quince was “aureum malum”, or golden fruit. The Latin for lemon was “felix malum,” or fortunate fruit.) “Malo” in line 3 is the ablative singular of the noun “malus”, which was the word for “apple tree.” In this case, the ablative is used to indicate that the poem is talking about the place where something is (“in an apple tree”). “Malo” in line 4 is the masculine ablative singular of the adjective “malus”, meaning “bad, evil.” In this case, the adjective is being used as a substantive (an adjective functioning as a noun, so “wicked” for “wicked man”), and the ablative is being used to indicate comparison (“than a wicked man”). The final “malo” in line 5 is the neuter ablative singular of the adjective “malum”, again being used as a substantive (“bad” for “bad stuff”, or more poetically “adversity”), and again with the ablative of place where.


Nice work, Jim. Wish I had your ability in Latin. Well, I wish I had any ability in Latin!

I like both your readings, by the way. Seems to me that the best poems, aphorisms and such can cut two ways. For example, take “A watched pot never boils”. Does it mean that waiting for the pot to boil seems to make it take forever, or does it mean that we should watch the pot closely to make sure it doesn’t boil?


Happy to hear you enjoyed the poem, Mark.

I like your take on the watched pot, too. All depends on what you’re cooking, doesn’t it?

You also reminded me of an old saying my great-grandmother (on the other side) was said to be fond of repeating: “No matter how crooked and bent the pot, there’s always a lid to fit it.”

Apparently she would say this while looking meaningfully at my father, which he found somewhat disconcerting…

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I only discovered this poem today. It being Poetry Month and Earth Day, I searched here to see what verse I might find.

I once asked a Latin scholar who shares my name about the etymology of the root “mal-,”that it could mean both bad and apple, but he had no answer. I never thought about stringing the words together.

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