More Latin you should know

Bizarro cartoon, by Piraro, 2008 (and a discussion on why the bumper sticker is badly translated)

Bizarro cartoon, by Piraro, 2008 (and a discussion on why the bumper sticker is badly translated)

Oh, I admit it. Sometimes I troll the blogosphere looking for provocation. And sometimes my trolling nets turn up good stuff.

At Joe Carter’s Evangelical Outpost, I found a link to “Latin You Should Know” from Neat-o-rama, When Joe sticks to the factual stuff, sometimes he’s right on.

Here’s the list — but it’s very incomplete, especially for high school students. I’ll append some stuff at the end, knowing that I am undoubtedly leaving out more, critical Latin words and phrases.

Why do you need these Latin phrases? Well, like Latin teachers always say, Latin lives on in plenty of English words and phrases. But mostly, it’s worth learning a bit of Latin because omnia dicta fortiori, si dicta Latina: everything sounds more impressive when said in Latin.

Ad hoc: Literally meaning “for this,” it’s generally used to mean improvised.

Ad infinitum (not to be confused with et cetera): “To infinity, without end.”

Caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.”

Citius altius fortius: “Faster, higher, stronger” – the motto of the modern Olympics.

Columbarium: A collective tomb in ancient Rome that was also used as a house for pigeons and doves.

Corpus christi: “The body of Christ.”

Cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos: “Whoever owns the land it is theirs up to the sky and down to the depths.” The state of Kansas used this law in the 1970s to argue that airlines could not serve liquor when flying over Kansas, a dry state. “Kansas,” Attorney General Vern Miller said, “goes all the way up and all the way down.” (If that’s true, Kansas can lay claim to, and prohibit drinking in, about 82,282 square miles of western China.)

Deus ex machina: “A god from the machine,” usually referring to an awkward and contrived resolution to conflict. The phrase got its start from the plays of Euripides, in which a god was lowered down onto the stage via a mechanical crane to sort out intractable conflicts and confused plots.

Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes: “And he sent forth his spirit among the unknown arts.” A beautiful quote from Ovid.

Id est: “That is,” often abbreviated “i.e.”

In medias res: “In the middle of things.” Stories like Paradise Lost or The Odyssey or Sweet Valley High #17 begin in the middle.

Ipso facto: “By the very fact,” i.e., “absolutely, regardless of circumstances.”

Lupus est homo homini: “Man is wolf to man.” No one knew this better than the Romans.

Magnum opus: Great work.

Nolo contendere: When you want to enter a plea of No contest” in as fancy a way as possible.

Opus Dei: “The work of God” or “An outsized villain in a bestselling novel.” [Also the name of a fraternity within the Catholic Church dedicated to protection of Catholicism.]

Quod erat demonstrandum: “That which was to be demonstrated.” Abbreviated QED, often the end of a mathematical proof.

Sic semper tyrannis: “Thus always to tyrants,” the motto of Virginia and the last first thing John Wilkes Booth said before after shooting Abraham Lincoln.

Sic transit gloria: “Glory fades,” popularized by Max Fischer, founder, Rushmore Double-Team Dodgeball Society.

Sub poena: “Under penalty,” as in “Do this or you’re in trouble.”

Tabula rasa: A “blank slate” – John Locke’s description of the human mind without knowledge.

Veni, vidi, vici: “I came, I saw, I conquered,” and the most oft-mispronounced Latin phrase in the world. It should be pronounced, WAY-nee, WEE-dee, WEE-kee.

Among other lapses, this list leaves out some of the phrases you’re most likely to see most often; some of these you tend to see only in abbreviated form.


Ed Darrell’s list would include:

ad hominem: “To the person.” This usually refers to an argument that attacks an opponent’s character rather than the argument the opponent advances; it is an erroneous argument if the person’s character is wholly separate from the substance of the argument, or otherwise irrelevant. The phrase has been stretched almost beyond meaning in internet discussions.

Annuit Coeptis: This comes from the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. Over a pyramid capped by a great eye, said to be the Eye of Providence, this motto literally translates to “Nod to undertakings.” The designer said it refers to the many times that Providence appears to have nodded assent to the undertakings of the nation.

Ars gratia artis: This is the motto of MGM Studios; it means “Art for the sake of art.”

Ars longa, vita brevis: This means “Art lasts long, life is short,” a quick way of saying that creating art is one way humans can achieve a degree of immortality. But there’s more. The Latin is translated from Greek, a longer aphorism by the physician Hippocrates (of Hippocratic Oath fame): “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile.” It is usually translated to English as, “Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” Hippocrates probably wasn’t referring to art, but instead noting that the learning a physician does — that is, learning the physician’s “art” — only ends with the end of the physician’s life. (Note, please, that Hippocrates has absolutely nothing to do with the word “hypocrisy

de facto, and de jure: These two terms mean, respectively, “in fact,” and “in law.” Often they are found in conjunction, pointing up the difference between what the law calls for, de jure, and what exists in fact, de facto. Odd as it may seem, often what is called for in law differs from from what really happens, or what really exists.

e.g. abbreviation for exempli gratia: In most writing, one might be better off to write “for example,” instead of resorting to Latin. It means, “for example.”

E Pluribus Unum: One of the mottoes of the United States of America, found on the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States. It’s borrowed and edited from a poem by the Roman, Virgil. The Latin translation is a bit archaic, but it is supposed to mean “Out of Many, One,” symbolizing the creation of one United States of America out of 13 states, now grown to 50.

et alii, almost always abbreviated as et al.: “and others.” Note the appearance of a relationship between “alii” and “ally.” Just a hint for you SAT takers. This phrase is used when citing papers written by a long string of authors whom you do not wish to name — a common issue for printers setting type in limited space. List the chief author or authors, and add et alii. Formal writing rules may differ. Check your MLA style manual, or your AP or New York Times style guides, the legal writing Blue Book, Turabian or Strunk & White. (If you didn’t know so many style manuals existed, get to a library and look at them so you can understand what’s going on.)

et cetera, usually abbreviated as etc.: Et” is Latin for “and.” The phrase more literally means “and so forth,” or “and other unspecified things of the same class.” This is a phrase used informally; in writing it should be either underlined or written in italics, as all Latin phrases are. Do not use this phrase in formal writing, in letters of recommendation, letters applying for jobs, or your doctoral thesis.

Et tu, Brute!: “And you, Brutus!” A line made famous by Shakespeare — this is what Julius Caesar is reputed to have said as he was being stabbed to death by a group of Roman senators. Caesar had thought Brutus to be his close ally and friend. When he recognized Brutus among his attackers, Caesar cried out in surprise. This line crops up in situations where someone is figuratively stabbed in the back or betrayed by a friend.

ex cathedra: Literally, “from the chair.” It usually means that the statement that follows is one issued with the full authority of the high office or position of the issuer; in the case of the Pope, it means a statement carries the full official weight of the church: It’s official.

ex libris: “From the library,” a phrase frequently used in the front of a book to show who owns it, the person from whose library the book has come.

ex nihilo: “From nothing.” A common creationist phrase, formerly part of the name of a creationist magazine. An issue for the early Christian church was whether God created the universe from nothing. “Creation ex nihilo” usually implies a creationist stance on cosmology and biology, contrary to science. This was a key difference between Steady State and Big Bang hypotheses in cosmology. Big Bang suggests existence of energy (at least) prior to the first expansion, though this point is lost on many creationists. My experience is that when a creationist drops this phrase into an argument, all reason is gone.

ex officio: By virtue or because of an office. In some organizations the chief executive officer is a member of some committees simply because the officer is the chief; by-laws may specify that ex officio members lack votes on such occasions, but many organizations allow a vote.

habeas corpus: “That you have the body.” This is an ancient writ (a writ is a court’s written order) used to compel someone to bring a person being detained before the court, most frequently to insure that the detained person’s imprisonment is not illegal. The full Latin phrase for the writ would be habeas corpus ad subjiciendum. In modern U.S. law, this is a writ used to get higher courts to review death sentences, and also to test extradition processes, the right to bail or the amount of bail, or the jurisdiction of a court that has imposed a criminal sentence. Habeas Corpus is also known as the Great Writ. After great fights over common-law courts, chancery courts and the Star Chamber proceedings, habeas corpus was made a formal and permanent part of English statutory law with the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679.

ibid. abbreviation for ibidem: “The same place.” This is the abbreviation used outside legal writing to indicate that a footnote or reference is to the same work cited immediately before, and to the same page unless a different page is noted.

id. abbreviation for idem: “The same.” This is the abbreviation used in legal writing to indicate the reference is to the same work cited immediately before.

Incognito: Without revealing one’s name or identity.

Novus Ordo Seclorum: Another motto of the United States, from the reverse of the Great Seal of the U.S. This means “A New Order for the Ages.” This is also borrowed from a poem by Virgil.

opus: This means simply “work,” and it is usually encountered in listings of works by classical music composers, such as “Opus 13.” Magnum opus is defined above, meaning “great work,” or a work of great length, or a masterpiece.

pro bono: A phrase shortened from “pro bono publico,” which means “for the benefit of the public. This usually refers to services offered for free by professionals like physicians, accountants or lawyers. In some states, such as Texas, lawyers are required — or “strongly urged” — to provide at least one week’s worth of work, free, to people or organizations that would otherwise go without legal representation.

pro forma: Here’s a phrase that’s often misused in the U.S. Literally translated to English, it means “as a matter of,” or “according to the form.” In most usages in English, the speaker means that no substance is to be altered, that the process is merely getting a document or decision reduced to language, or in some cases, getting the document formatted, for final signature. “It’s all over now but typing the paper up” might be a good phrase for how it is usually used.

Quid pro quo: “This for that,” or “something for something.” This phrase describes one of the elements usually necessary for a contract, an exchange of value. The phrase also may distinguish noble public service from graft: Politicians are expected to represent their constituents simply by reason of their being constituents; if there is a quid pro quo exchange — such as, cash payments in return for a vote — there is likelihood of criminal action.

Res ipsa loquitur: A phrase that means “the thing speaks for itself.” It is often used for an object or a fact that is so plain in its meaning that no amount of embellishment really helps. For example, there is the famous personal injury case (tort case) in which the chief evidence was an X-ray of the patient showing a pair of clamps left inside the patient when the surgeon closed the abdomen. The apparatus was clearly not supposed to be there, and the malpractice was obvious.

sic: “Thus,” or “so.” This is used in quoting works, when a word is misspelled in the quote, and the misspelling is kept in place. The editorial insertion of the Latin “so” in brackets is meant to alert the reader that the present author did not err, but included the error to show the authenticity of the quoted material.

tempus fugit: “Time flees,” more usually translated as “time flies.” According to the much-maligned-but-generally-accurate Wikipedia, it also comes from a verse by the Roman Virgil, “Georgica“: Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, which means, “But it flees in the meantime: irretrievable time flees.” SAT students will want to note the root “fugit,” which appears in “fugitive” in English; and also note the root “temp,” which appears in English words like “temporary” and “contemporary.”

terra, and terra firma, and terra incognita: terra means “Earth,” and is the root of words like “territory, and “terrestrial,” meaning from this planet or from the ground, and “extraterrestrial,” which means from someplace other than Earth. Terra firma originally referred to solid ground, as opposed to the oceans that explorers sailed; in the modern world it still refers to solid ground, but it is more often referred to after a flight of some kind, since more people travel in airplanes today than in watercraft. Terra incognita simply means “unknown ground,” and often appeared on ancient maps to show where the limits of the mapmaker’s knowledge were (or supposed knowledge).

One very good source for most purposes of American use of Latin is Black’s Law Dictionary, especially those edited by Bryan Garner (I used the 7th edition here; it is in the 8th edition now). The editors include Latin phrases where appropriate through the text, but unlike the original, 1891 version of the dictionary from Henry Campbell Black, which assumed the reader knows Latin, they have listed famous and not-famous legal maxims in an appendix to the dictionary. Black’s is a dictionary to which most teachers of social studies and college students should have good access.

Certainly there are other phrases I have omitted — which ones do you think should be included in a list of Latin words and phrases an educated person should command? Comments are open, of course.

6 Responses to More Latin you should know

  1. Ray C. says:

    domino vobiscum (many children know this as Dominic, go frisk ‘em. Not being high-church, I’m sure I’ve mis-spelled this)

    More likely Dominus vobiscum, nominative case: “the Lord is with you all”, or perhaps “may the Lord be with you al”l. Note also that vobiscum is plural; the singular is tecum. As in Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum….


  2. Oh, for a muse of Preview! Also, for a wider field to type in. But I admire its duplicate-postings detection.

    Quid pro quo reminds me that it would be a fine source for the English slang word quid, meaning a pound. But the OED doesn’t even venture an etymology.

    As to Tempus fugit, is that irretrievable time fleeing, or time fleeing irretrievably? Looks as if they’d be spelled the same, unless I’m forgetting something elementary here. Wonder how the point would be decided.

    And “ceteris paribus”, other things being equal, used so much by economists (in whose discipline things so rarely are equal) as to become “cet. par.” for convenience.

    While we’re in the absolute constructions: “mutatis mutandis” is among my favorites: roughly, “if you change the things that need changing”. An economist might write “The same rule applies, mutatis mutandis to the case of …” But it would be too undignified to write mut. mut.


  3. You’ve opened a major can of worms here, but my Latin is nowhere near good enough to translate that phrase. However–

    I’m surprised everyone has missed “Ave atque vale.” Hail and farewell, it is invariably translated; it’s the last line of a very affecting poem by Catullus, written when he had traveled far to his brother’s grave, and now had to leave.

    I googled the phrase a couple of years ago after seeing my daughter’s play about Catullus, and found it has a good deal of currency. But it’s often used in an ironic sense, sometimes with a note of good riddance.

    (That was one of Catullus’ clean poems, noteworthy in itself. We will not post here a translation of the useful phrase “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo.”)

    Et tu Brute is a bit problematic because (like the preceding Caullus line, in fact) it’s hard to get the full sense across. As my Latin teacher emphasized, starting the sentence with Et is rather emphatic, giving it much the sense of “Even”. See also, “Et in Arcadia ego” which does not mean “I was in Arcadia too”; Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia makes note of this. Anyway, a piece of imdiomatic English that catches the sense would be “You too Brutus?” — but of course the sound is horrible. Yoo Too Broo. Moreover, you’d be afraid your Latin teacher would think you had confused “tu” and “too”.

    This is getting much too long.


  4. vuee says:

    ante meridiem (A.M. AM, before noon)
    post meridiem

    anno domini (A.D.)

    domino vobiscum (many children know this as Dominic, go frisk ’em. Not being high-church, I’m sure I’ve mis-spelled this)

    Dominus Illuminatio Mea (university motto, of Oxford no less. Must look up that history)

    coproencephalons from (maybe Greek to me)


  5. Jackson K. Eskew says:

    Most appropriately for this shameless age:

    -In flagrante delicto

    -In articulo mortis

    -Argumentum ad populum

    -Fraus meriter fraudem

    -Ex praecognita malitia

    -Ex nihilo nihil fit

    And so on….


  6. Onkel Bob says:

    arena sine calce – sand without lime, refers to the formula for cement/concrete; indicates your reasoning lacks a binding agent.

    cras mihi, my turn tomorrow; eventually my name will be first author on a paper!

    dea certe – certainly a goddess; use it for picking up that gorgeous graduate student in your biology lab.

    Edo ergo sum, I eat, therefore I am; a nice play on Descartes’ cognito ergo sum.

    Eventus stultorum magister, the result is the instructor of fools; some of us are harder to teach than others :^)

    faex populi – the common people, or more insulting the dregs of society. Makes me think of Vox Day every time I write it.

    and last but not least:

    pablulum animi, food for the mind.

    Acknowledgments to Eugene Ehrlich author of Amo, Amas, Amat, and More & Veni, Vidi, Vici.


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