I’ve been reviewing Latin, with a view to reading some old commentaries and works of scholarship. I can’t say I’m a fluent reader (yet!), but I’m enjoying the process. Speaking of which …
Reading a book of commentary extracts on Nehemiah, I came across a Latin expression that puzzled me. C. F. Houbigant (18th century Biblicist) is commenting on Neh. 2:1, וְלֹא־הָיִיתִי רַע לְפָנָיו, “Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence” (KJV) – “him” being the Persian emperor. Houbigant translates et non ei displicui, “and I had not displeased him.” His comment is Nihil erat tam obvium, quam ut sic interpretaremur. Et prorsus me fugit, quare nodum in sirpo quaesierint plerique interpretes. “Nothing was more obvious, than that we should interpret it so. And it utterly escapes me, why many interpreters have sought a knot in a bulrush.”
That last expression, nodum in sirpo, made little sense to me and was obviously an idiom. The Internet, however, was soon able to point me to a useful source. In a book entitled Letters and Exercises of the Elizabethan Schoolmaster John Conybeare (1905), the teacher is commenting on Latin idioms,, and we find the following: “Nodum in sirpo quaerere : To seeke a knot in a rushe. A proverbe where one maketh a thinge difficulte or doutfull, which is verie playne to be understode, or ys scrupulouse in a thinge without cause.” Eureka! But where does the idiom come from? Apparently it is classical and Plautus is cited as the earliest user of it.
The meaning, I assume, derives from the fact that a rush (or bulrush) is a straight stem, without complication or articulation; to seek for a "knot" in it is to overlook the plain in a search for the complex.
The default gloss of the key word in the Nehemiah passage is "bad," with the exact sense varying by context. If most English versions choose "sad," it is because of the conversation that follows, in which the emperor notices that Nehemiah is gloomy or downcast. Houbigant's translation is certainly not obvious.
(Also, by the way, apparently John Conybeare was a forebear of the early 20th century Orientalist F. C. Conybeare.)