A passage from one of Ennius’ plays, reported by Aulus Gellius (19.10.11). The translation here – from the Loeb Fragmentary Republican Latin v.2 – goes as far to capturing the wordplay of the original as possible. Curiously, the passage is cited for a rare word at the end, not the tongue-twister.
And here Iulius Celsinus1 called attention to the fact that also in Ennius’ tragedy that is entitled Iphigeneia this very word that was being investigated [praeterpropter, “more or less”] had been written and was normally spoiled rather than explained by grammarians. Therefore he ordered Ennius’ Iphigeneia to be brought forward immediately. We read the following verses written in a chorus of this tragedy:
He who does not know how to use otium [“leisure”]
has more negotium [“work”] than in negotium [“when occupied”] when there is negotium [“work”].
For he, for whom what he should do is arranged, does this, he devotes himself to this with no negotium [“difficulty”] at all,
therein he delights his intellect and mind;
in otiosum otium [“leisurely leisure”] the mind does not know what it wants.
This is the same: look, we are now neither at home nor on campaign:
we go here, then there; when one has gone there, it pleases to move from there.
The mind wanders doubtfully; one lives a life more or less.
As soon as this was read, Fronto then said to the grammarian, who was already wavering: “Did you hear, greatest master, that your Ennius used praeterpropter [“more or less”] and indeed with the kind of meaning for which the criticisms of philosophers tend to be most serious? We are therefore seeking—do tell us—since an Ennian word is now being investigated, what the deep sense of this line is: ‘the mind wanders doubtfully; one lives a life more or less.’”
atque ibi Iulius Celsinus admonuit in tragoedia quoque Enni, quae Iphigenia inscripta est, id ipsum, de quo quaerebatur [i.e., “praeterpropter”], scriptum esse et a grammaticis contaminari magis solitum quam enarrari. quocirca statim proferri Iphigeniam Q. Enni iubet. in eius tragoediae choro inscriptos esse hos versus legimus:
otio qui nescit uti,
plus negoti habet quam cum est negotium in negotio.
nam cui, quod agat, institutum est, non ullo negotio
id agit, id studet, ibi mentem atque animum delectat suum;
otioso in otio animus nescit quid velit.
hoc idem est; em neque domi nunc nos nec militiae sumus:
imus huc, hinc illuc; cum illuc ventum est, ire illinc lubet.
incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.
hoc ubi lectum est, tum deinde Fronto ad grammaticum iam labentem “audistine,” inquit “magister optime Ennium tuum dixisse ‘praeterpropter’ et cum sententia quidem tali, quali severissimae philosophorum esse obiurgationes solent? petimus igitur, dicas, quoniam de Enniano iam verbo quaeritur, qui sit remotus huiusce versus sensus: ‘incerte errat animus, praeterpropter vitam vivitur.’”