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A Little Latin Is a Lovely Thing

by Charles Harrington Elster
(From the Nov.-Dec. 2002 issue of SPELL/Binder)

And now for a few words about a dead language.

Remember when Latin was a standard part of the curriculum? Good old veni, vidi, vici. In my two years of high school Latin, I came, I saw, and I stumbled. How I struggled with that twisted syntax and rigid grammar toward a miserable C minus. I could never make it over the pons asinorum, the asses’ bridge, which one dictionary defines as "a critical test of ability imposed upon the inexperienced or ignorant."

But looking back, I don’t regret a minute of it. In fact, one of these days I'd like to pick it up again. Why? Mainly because learning some Latin is one of the best ways to build your knowledge of English. Latin may be a dead language, but its soul lives on in thousands of English words.

In law especially, and in medicine, literature, philosophy, theology, and science, Latin words and phrases are part of the professional jargon. But dozens of Latin phrases have also made their way into everyday English.

For example (or e.g.—more on that in a moment), caveat emptor means "let the buyer beware." In business, caveat emptor refers to the principle that the seller of a product cannot be held responsible for defects in quality or workmanship unless the product carries a warranty. Pro bono, short for pro bono publico, means "for the public good." Quid pro quo means literally “something for something”; a quid pro quo is something given in return for something else, an equal exchange, a tit for tat.

Ad infinitum means "to infinity, endlessly, without limit." Pro tempore means "temporarily, for the time being"; it is often abbreviated pro tem, as in an official title: John Doe, Chairman of the Board pro tem. Sine qua non means literally "without which not"; it refers to something essential or indispensable: "Their cooperation was the sine qua non in the success of this project."

And then there’s the familiar vice versa, which has nothing to do with vice, corruption, depravity. This vice comes from the Latin vice, the ablative of vicis, a change, turn, alternation, and is best pronounced in two syllables: VY-suh.

There are also many common English abbreviations derived directly from Latin: i.e. stands for id est, which means "that is" or "namely"; e.g. stands for exempli gratia, "for example"; q.v. stands for quod vide, meaning "which see"; cf. stands for confer, meaning "compare"; and so forth, and so on, et cetera, etc.

Every time you open your wallet and pull out a dollar bill you are exposed to Latin. E pluribus unum means "one out of many"; as the motto of the United States it refers to one government formed from many states. Look closely at the back of the bill and you will also see the Latin phrases annuit coeptis and novus ordo seclorum. Annuit coeptis means "God has favored our undertaking." Novus ordo seclorum means "a new order of the ages is created"; it is the motto on the Great Seal of the United States.

I could go on with these Latin phrases ad infinitum (forever) or ad nauseam (until it makes you sick), but instead I’ll leave you with a few Latin proverbs, culled from a delightful book by Eugene Ehrlich called Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

Latin may not be your cup of tea, for quod cibus est aliis, aliis est venenum: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. But Latin is part of our collective knowledge, and as we all know, scientia est potentia: knowledge is power. On the other hand, de gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no accounting for tastes, and vir sapit qui pauca loquitur: the wise man knows when to hold his tongue.

Well, now I have taken you, as the ancient Romans would say of a banquet, ab ovo usque ad mala, from the eggs to the apples (meaning from start to finish). And because tempus fugit (time flies), all I have left to say is verbum sat sapienti: a word to the wise is enough.

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Charles Harrington Elster is a vice-president of SPELL, the author of several books on language, and the pronunciation editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, which has Latin entries passim (here and there).

Copyright © 2002 by Charles Harrington Elster.
All rights reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.