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The Essential Latin: What You Need to Know

The Essential Latin: What You Need to Know

English is not a Romantic language—that is, English is not a language that descends from Latin. However, Latin has greatly influenced our English vocabulary because of its role as the language of science, law, and scholarly pursuits. Learning Latin roots is a great way to improve your English vocabulary. However, pure Latin words and phrases abound in our modern world.

Below are some of the most commonly used Latin expressions, phrases, and abbreviations. Learning them can enhance your knowledge, help you navigate research materials, and allow you to amaze your friends and relatives with your Latin language skills!

Familiar Latin Terms

Ad hoc—Original meaning: to this [purpose]. This term is often used in reference to something (especially a committee) created for a specific purpose.

Example:  Our church formed an ad hoc committee for the purpose of exploring options for the new sanctuary.

Ad infinitum—Original meaning: to infinity. Something that continues without stopping.

Example:  The speech seemed to continue ad infinitum.

Ad nauseum—Original meaning: to the point of nausea.

Example: Members of the Jones family talked about their trip ad nauseumand I wanted to go home.

Ad valoremOriginal meaning: according to value. Refers to something (usually a tax) that is related to the value of an object.

Example:Sales and property taxes are ad valorem taxes.

Alma mater—Original meaning: bountiful mother.Used since 1710 to refer to a person’s school or university.

Example: HarvardUniversityis my alma mater.

Bone fide—Original meaning: in good faith.

Example: I would like to get paid with bona fide currency, not Monopoly money.

De facto—Original meaning: according to the fact.Now means “in reality, though perhaps not officially.”

Example: Though we never actually elected him, Thomas is the de facto leader of our club.

Ergo—Original meaning: therefore or as a result.

Example: He failed the drug test; ergo, he does not qualify to run in the race.

Errata—Original meaning: errors. Now used to indicate a list of errors in a publication or film.

Example: Along with the correct answers, the textbook publishers included a page of errata on their website.

In toto: Original meaning: totally or entirely.

Example: They bought the business in toto.

Magna cum laude—Original meaning: with great praise or honor. Often used in graduation ceremonies to designate those with high grade-point averages.

Example: At our school, those with grade-point averages of 3.8 or higher graduate magna cum laude.

Mirable dictu!—Original meaning: incredible to relate.

Example: I asked my children to clean their rooms and, mirable dictu, they did it!

Per capita—Original meaning: by the head.Now usually means “per person.” This is a term commonly used in statistics.

Example: The graph shows the average per capita income of the people in our state.

Persona non grata—Original meaning: person not acceptable. Now means an unwelcome person.

Example: After he was convicted of terrorism, he was considered persona non grata by the U.S. government.

Pro bono—short for pro bono publico. Original meaning: for the good of the public. Usually refers to free legal services offered to nonprofit organizations or those who cannot afford to pay.

Example: Susan decided to handle the church’s legal case pro bono.

Sic—Original meaning: thus. This term is often used when quoting someone who committed an error. Putting the word sic in brackets [sic] will show the reader that the error was made by the original speaker, not the writer or editor.

Example: According to one eyewitness, “I ain’t [sic]seen nothing like that in all my born days.

Status quo—Original meaning: the state in which. Now refers to the current situation or state of things.

Example:Change may be exciting, but I prefer the status quo.

Summa cum laude—Original meaning: with highest praise or honor.

Example:The valedictorian and salutatorian both graduated summa cum laude.

Terra firma—Original meaning: solid earth.

Example:The sea voyage was a great adventure, but he was glad to reach terra firma.

Vice versa—Original meaning: the other way around. Used to indicate that terms can be switched and still be true.

Example: I will help you with your chores and vice versa (meaning you will also help me with mine).

Familiar Latin Expressions

Alea iacta estor alea jacta est: “The die is cast.” This phrase is commonly ascribed to Julius Caesar. He reportedly said these words as he crossed the River Rubicon and began his civil war. It is sometimes used now to describe a crossroads in life where an important, irreversible decision is made.

Carpe diem: “Seize the day!” This phrase expresses the Epicurean or Hedonistic philosophy that we should seize the pleasures or opportunities of the day without regard for the future.

Caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.” This is now an established commercial principle: a buyer should explore a purchase carefully before buying, because he assumes risks at purchase.

Cogito ergo sum: “I think; therefore, I am.” This popular philosophical saying is actually a Latin translation of a statement by French philosopher Rene Descartes in 1637.

Deus ex machina: “God from a machine.” Today, this phrase usually refers to an improbable plot device used to extricate literary characters from a seemingly impossible situation.

Ex libris: “From the books.” This phrase is sometimes used before the name on a bookplate at the beginning of a volume to indicate ownership of a book. The term can also be used to refer to the bookplate itself.

Mens sana in corpora sano:A sound (or healthy) mind in a sound (or healthy) body.” This expression is sometimes seen in fitness or health facilities.

Q.E. D (Quod erat demonstrandum): “That which was to have been proven.” This phrase is sometimes used in mathematics to indicate the success of a mathematical proof.

Tabula rasa:“The blank slate.” This is the philosophical notion that the mind is unformed until it is affected by impressions or experience.

Tempus Fugit: “Time flees” or “Time flies.” This expression is sometimes seen on old clocks.

Veni vidi vici: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” According to historical tradition, this terse phrase was used by Julius Caesar to announce to the Roman Senate that he had defeated the ruler of Pontus. Now, it is sometimes used to announce a quick and decisive victory.

Common Latin Abbreviations:

A.D.             Anno Domini            in the year of the Lord Used as a calendar designation.

Ad lib.             ad libitum                freely; as desired; spontaneously

A.M.             Ante Meridian           before the middle (of the day)

P.M.              Post Meridian           After the middle (of the day)

c.                 circa                       around or about (Example: This event took place c. 1900 A.D.)

cf.                confer                    compare Used sometimes in writing to direct the reader’s attention to           another book or part of the document

D.V.             Deo volente             if God wills

e.g.              exemplia gratia        for example

et al.            et alia                     and others (Example: This book was written by John Smith and Roy Jackson, et al.)

etc.              et cetera                 And  so forth (Example: Cameron brought all the snacks for the party: chips, dip, cheese, cookies, etc.) 

Ibid.             ibidem                    in the same place Used in research to indicate that the source cited is

                                                the same as the last one mentioned.

id.                idem                      Means the same as ibid., but is used more commonly in legal documents

i.e.               id est                      that is Used to further explain something. (Example: Please list members of your immediate family, i.e., mother, father, brothers, and siblings

lb.                libra                       a pound Now used to denote the measurement of a pound.

M.O.             modus operandi        method of operation Police sometimes use this to describe the usual way a criminal operates. 

N.B.             Nota Bene               Note Well Often used in research and can be used to note important comments in textbooks or notes.

No.                  numero                   Number (Example: Please note page no. 54.)

non seq.         non sequitur                it does not logically follow

p.d.                 per diem                 per day  (Example: The worker was paid $50 p.d.)

P.S.                 Post Scriptum          written after (the main letter or document)

R.I.P.              Requiescat In Pace    Rest in Peace Sometimes seen on tombstones.

vs. or v.          versus                    against or in opposition to

Amelia Harper is a homeschooling mother of five and a pastor’s wife. She is also the author of Literary Lessons from the Lord of the Rings, a complete one-year literature curriculum for secondary-level students. In addition, she is an English tutor and a freelance writer who contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines. For more information, go to

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, Winter 2010-11.

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