De mortuis nil nisi bonum  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum is a Latin phrase which indicates that it is socially inappropriate to say anything negative about a (recently) deceased person. Sometimes shortened to nil nisi bonum, the phrase derives from the sentence "de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est" and is variously translated as "Speak no ill of the dead", "Of the dead, speak no evil", "Do not/ Don't speak ill of the dead" or, strictly literally, "Of the dead, nothing unless good".

The first recorded use of the phrase is by Diogenes Laërtius in Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, where he attributes it to Chilon of Sparta. Since both men were Greek, the original aphorism was rendered as τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν ("Don't badmouth a dead man"). In 1432 Italian theologian Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes' work into Latin, popularizing the phrase in that language.

In literature and popular culture

  • A cinematic use appears early in the film Lawrence of Arabia during T. E. Lawrence's funeral scene. Two characters are looking at a bust of Lawrence and one, a clergyman, says, "Well, nil nisi bonum. But did he really deserve... a place in here?" referring to St Paul's Cathedral where the scene takes place.
  • The phrase is used in the title of John Collier's short story "De Mortuis"; Collier uses this phrase to give the story an implied ending.
  • This phrase is famously misquoted in Act I of Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull. The character Shamrayev conflates it with the phrase de gustibus non est disputandum, resulting in de gustibus aut bene, aut nihil ("Let be said of taste either good or nothing").
  • John Buchan has his character Sir Edward Leithen use the shortened phrase, "de mortuis, &c." after his destruction of the criminal mastermind Andrew Lumley in The Power-House, published in 1916.
  • The phrase is repeated in Louise Gluck's poem "The open grave" in her collection Vita Nova, and in Adam Lindsay Gordon's "Sunlight on the sea" in his collection Sea Spray and Smoke Drift
  • Dorothy L. Sayers. Murder Must Advertise "What sort of chap was Dean?"

"Well. De mortuis, and all that, but I wasn't exactly keen on him. I thought him rather an unwholesome little beast.

"It's a good thing Mr. Noakes ain't alive to see all that 'eap of coal. That's a fire as does credit to any chimney." Steps on the path, and a dismal little procession passing the window: a sergeant of police and another uniformed man, carrying a stretcher between them. Mr. Puffett glanced from the window and removed his bowler hat. "And where's all 'is cheeseparin' brought 'im now?" he demanded. "Nowhere." "De mortuis," said Peter, "and then some." "Yes, he seems to be getting a nice derangement of epitaphs, poor old creature."

  • In Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, Dr. Paul Proteus recalls the phrase in relation to fellow workers who would make a faux pas during an annual gathering and not be invited back next year.
  • In Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "Silence Please" (from the collection Tales from the White Hart), this phrase is mentioned in description of a college student/inventor's death.
  • The phrase is slightly parodied in the Torchwood episode "Something Borrowed"; after team member Doctor Owen Harper is brought back to a state of living death- still capable of independent thought and movement while being physically deceased-, his teammate Ianto Jones explains that he has begun to agree with Owen since his death because he was brought up not to speak ill of the dead, "even if they still do most of their talking for themselves".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "De mortuis nil nisi bonum" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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