Latin may be a “dead” language, but Latin phrases are still used all the time in modern English. How many of these common expressions do you know?
We all use Latin phrases even if we don’t realize it. I guarantee you have said “et cetera” or “vice versa” at least once in your life. And have you ever turned in a curriculum vitae (or C.V.) when applying for a job?
Some Latin expressions slip into English unobtrusively, while others – like mutatis mutandis and cum laude – look a little more foreign. In this post, I will introduce you to over forty Latin phrases that you really should know.
If you don’t, no shame. It’s a chance to learn something new!
Common Latin Phrases Used in English
Are you ready? Here come over 40 awesome Latin phrases that appear in English on a regular basis! You don’t need to know any Latin in order to follow along, because I explain both the literal and the idiomatic meaning.
But here’s a quick note for anyone who is learning Latin: since I am focusing on the use of the phrases in English, I have not included macrons in the spelling of the Latin words.
A priori & a posteriori
Literal meaning: “from (what comes) first” and “from (what comes) after”
The expressions a priori and a posteriori are primarily used in philosophical or logical contexts. An a priori argument is based on self-evident principles and thus on “what comes first.” A priori arguments move from causes to effects.
An a posteriori argument, on the other hand, is constructed based on reviewing the evidence – that is, “what comes after”. A posteriori arguments move in the opposite direction, from effects or data to causes.
Literal meaning: “to this”
Ad hoc in English means “created for this specific purpose” or “impromptu”. So, if there is a flood in a school, the principal may call an ad hoc meeting to discuss how to respond.
We often hear about decisions made ad hoc, as well. An ad hoc decision is one that is made for the context at hand. You aren’t thinking about the broader significance, but rather of the specific application.
Literal meaning: “to the man”
The most common usage of ad hominem today is to talk about an ad hominem argument. This is an argument that relates “to the man”, i.e. to the person you are arguing with. Instead of addressing the real topic of the debate or the person’s reasoning, you attack their character.
Thus ad hominem arguments are usually irrelevant or illogical. For instance, if you are debating ethics with your friend and you can’t refute their point, you might yell, “You don’t know anything about ethics! You cheated on your final exam in physics!”
Literal meaning: “to infinity”
If something continues ad infinitum, this means that it goes on forever, without end. If Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story spoke Latin, he would say, “Ad infīnītum et ultrā!” (To infinity and beyond!)
Literal meaning: “to nausea, to vomiting”
If you do something ad nauseam, this means that you do it to a nauseating degree. For example: “We have discussed your ingrown toenails ad nauseam. Let’s change the subject!”
Literal meaning: “elsewhere”
Alibī is a Latin adverb meaning ”elsewhere”. This makes sense since in modern English, an alibi is evidence that can prove that you were elsewhere when a crime was committed.
”I can’t have stolen the diamond necklace, because I was somewhere else – I was at school during the robbery and my teacher will tell you so!”
Literal meaning: “nurturing mother”
The Latin adjective alma means “nurturing” and often described fertility goddesses in ancient Rome. In the 1700s, people started referring to their university as their alma mater. It makes sense – your university is the mother who nourishes your intellectual growth!
Literal meaning: “another I”
The expression alter ego is used so frequently in English that people often don’t realize it is Latin. In fact, alter ego originally referred to a trusted friend. Aristotle, Cicero, and other ancient authors insist that a true friend is so close that they are another self.
Over time alter ego came to have an expanded meaning. Now an alter ego can refer to a person’s hidden identity, to a fictional character who is a double of the author, and more. Clark Kent and Superman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the list goes on.
Anno Domini (A.D.)
Literal meaning: “in the year of the Lord”
In the modern world we divide time into two eras: an old era before the year of Jesus Christ’s birth (traditionally year 0) and a new era after. Traditionally, all the years after 0 were accompanied by the abbreviation A.D.
So we are currently in 2022 A.D. That is, we are in the 2022nd year since the birth of the Lord.
These days we often hear C.E. or Common Era instead of A.D. and anno Domini. But it is still good to know where the system came from!
Literal meaning: ”before the war”
Today we most frequently see ante bellum written as one word, ”antebellum”, and used as an adjective. In the United States, you may hear about the Antebellum South – i.e., the American South before the Civil War.
The opposite of antebellum is postbellum or ”postwar”.
Ante meridiem (A.M.) & post meridiem (P.M.)
Literal meaning: “before noon” and “after noon”
A.M. and its opposite P.M. are everywhere in the modern world. Most people probably don’t realize, though, that these abbreviations are short for ante meridiem and post meridiem. These Latin phrases mean literally ”before noon” and ”after noon”.
Literal meaning: “in good faith”
In modern English, bona fide is usually an adjective meaning “genuine” or “authentic”. A bona fide genius is someone who is, literally, a genius (not just a relatively smart person who gets called a genius).
We also hear of bona fide offers, proposals, etc. Bona fide is occasionally an adverb; for example, “The merchant acted bona fide, but he still lost the goods.”
Literal meaning: “let him beware”
A caveat is a warning or stipulation. So, for example, I could say: “I highly recommend traveling to Italy, with the caveat that it may be quite hot in the summer.”
Cum laude, magna cum laude, & summa cum laude
Literal meaning: “with honor”, “with great honor”, and “with greatest honor”
Many universities award high-achieving students with Latin honors. If you graduate with a high grade point average (G.P.A.), then you will receive a bachelor’s degree cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude.
Different universities have different scales for Latin honors. At my undergraduate institution we had the following range:
- Cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.40 and above
- Magna cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.70 and above
- Summa cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.90 and above
Literal meaning: “course of life”
Your curriculum vitae or C.V. documents your education, jobs, qualifications, and accomplishments. It is, in effect, a record of your life – so the original Latin meaning makes sense.
Literal meaning: “in fact”
De facto is used to describe a state of affairs that exists in reality, even if it is not legally sanctioned. Someone might be the de facto head of the government, even if they technically are only an advisor. Or a country might be in a de facto state of war, even if neither side is willing to recognize it.
Deus ex machina
Literal meaning: ”god from a machine”
A deus ex machina is a person or thing that appears suddenly in a literary work in order to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem. In ancient Greek drama, a god or goddess would often make an appearance at the end of a play in order to explain what should happen or what the characters ought to do.
In ancient Greece, the actor playing the divinity would be rolled onto the stage on a crane called a mechane. And this is what gave us the expression “god from the mechane” or “god from a machine”.
Literal meaning: ”characters of the drama”
Have you ever read a play of Shakespeare, or any play script? Then you may have encountered the phrase dramatis personae. The English equivalent is ”cast of characters”.
The dramatis personae includes each character’s name along with a brief description of who they are.
Literal meaning: “therefore”
We have borrowed ergo straight from Latin and we use it in exactly the same way as the ancient Romans did: to mean “therefore”. Of course, saying “ergo” in English can make you sound kind of stuffy and pedantic.
Literal meaning: “and other things”
Et cetera is one of the most common Latin phrases used in English. Since it literally means “and other things”, we usually find it at the end of lists or long descriptions.
Literal meaning: “may you have the body”
A writ of habeas corpus is a court order that requires a jailer to bring a detained person before the court. Habeas corpus is meant to prevent false imprisonment; any detained person can petition for a writ of habeas corpus to be issued on their behalf.
According to Etymonline, the Latin phrase itself comes from a 14th-century law. The full law says something to the effect of “we command that you bring the body before us.”
Literal meaning: ”in memory”
This phrase is pretty self-explanatory. We dedicate books, movies, fellowships, etc. in memory of our deceased loved ones, and often we write in memoriam on the program or include it in the title.
Literal meaning: ”because of the deed itself, by the very act”
Ipso facto in English means ”inevitably” or ”necessarily”. If something is true ipso facto, then it is true by definition, without a doubt.
Literal meaning: “with things having been changed that ought to be changed”, i.e. “with the necessary changes having been made”
I debated whether or not to include mutatis mutandis in this list of common Latin phrases, because it is a little rarer. But it shows up just enough in academic and legal contexts that it deserves a mention.
Typically, we use mutatis mutandis in order to recognize that a comparison is not perfect, but still has some validity. So, for instance, I could say, “The experience of traveling in Italy is, mutatis mutandis, quite similar to that of traveling in Spain.”
Or we can use mutatis mutandis to signal that something will work well once the necessary changed have been made. For example: “I think that we should move forward with the new contract, mutatis mutandis.”
Literal meaning: “it does not follow”
Non sequitur is one of the most familiar Latin phrases still found in English today. Back in the 1500s, the term began to be used in logic to refer to a conclusion that did not follow from the premise.
Now the meaning has broadened. We can say any sort of statement is a non sequitur if it doesn’t relate to the rest of the conversation. Let’s say you are talking about watching a movie and your friend suddenly says, “But I really like swimming with sea turtles!” That would be a non sequitur.
Literal meaning: “note well”
Nota bene, abbreviated to N.B., appears frequently in academic articles, textbooks, etc. Authors use it to draw readers’ attention to something specifically important.
For example, if you were drafting an instruction manual to a microwave, you might write: “Nota bene: do not put anything metal in the microwave!”
Per annum & per diem
Literal meanings: “per year” and “per day”
These two Latin phrases often pop up in English in the context of hours or pay. For instance, you may earn a certain amount per annum (per year). Or percentages may increase a certain amount per diem (per day).
A per diem can also refer to the allowance that an employer gives their employees per day when traveling. In this case, per diem is a noun.
Literal meaning: “per heads”
In a modern context, per capita means “per unit of population”. We can talk about deaths per capita, jobs per capita, income per capita, etc.
Literal meaning: “through itself”
Per se is another extremely common Latin phrase. The easiest way to translate it into idiomatic English would be “in and of itself” or “intrinsically”. So, for example, I could say: “I don’t think a focus on grammar is bad per se, but it is often accompanied by old-fashioned and harmful teaching methods.”
Persona non grata
Literal meaning: “a not welcome person”
A persona non grata is one who, for whatever reason, is not welcome in a certain place. Example: ”Every since he insulted the emperor, Lucan has been persona non grata in all of the imperial circles.”
Literal meaning: “for the good”
This Latin phrase is mostly used in a legal context. Lawyers will do pro bono work – that is, they work for free, for the public good.
Quid pro quo
Literal meaning: “something for something”
A quid pro quo transaction is one in which each person contributes something in exchange for something else. Quid pro quo often receives a negative reputation: we think of bribery, underhanded deals, or even sexual harassment.
But technically any trading or exchange can be classed as quid pro quo. If I cut my neighbor’s grass and they give me apple pie in return, then that is a quid pro quo transaction!
Literal meaning: ”rest”
A requiem mass is a mass said for the souls of the dead. Requiem comes from a line in the mass for the dead: Dōnā eīs requiem ”grant them peace.”
Literal meaning: “thus”
In newspaper articles and other written contexts you will see [sic] inserted in the middle of quotes. Often people think this is an abbreviation, but nope – it’s just a Latin word meaning “thus” or “so.”
Writers use [sic] to indicate that their original source contained a grammatical error. The writer wants to represent the quote accurately, but wants readers to realize that they weren’t the one to make the mistake.
Example: “He wrote that ‘they’re [sic] song was beautiful.'” In this context, the reporter wants you to know that he – the original source – accidentally put they’re instead of the correct their. They’re was in THE ORIGINAL QUOTE, and was not a mistake that the reporter made.
Sine qua non
Literal meaning: “without which not”
A sine qua non is something that is absolutely essential. Here are a few examples:
- “Knowledge of Spanish is a sine qua non for an ambassador to Peru.”
- “Sun screen is a sine qua non on any beach vacation.”
Literal meaning: “state in which”
The status quo is the current state or condition that a person, company, country, etc. finds themselves in – in other words, the existing state of affairs. We often associate the status quo with stagnation or lack of progress, but it doesn’t have to be negative.
Literal meaning: “according to (individual) words”
If you repeat something verbatim, this means that you repeat it in exactly the same words as it was originally said. ”Verbatim” comes from the Latin verbum ”word” plus the adverbial ending –ātim.
Literal meaning: “with the position having been changed”
Vice versa is such a common expression that it doesn’t really require explanation. Basically, if something is true vice versa, then it is also true the other way around.
So, for example, I could say, “He supports me and vice versa.” This means that not only does he support me, but the reverse is also true: I support him.
Should you italicize Latin phrases used in English?
It depends! Both the Chicago Manual of Style (7.53-55) and the MLA Handbook agree that less common Latin phrases should be italicized. So, for instance, you should put mutatis mutandis in italics.
But if a word or phrase has been anglicized and is now familiar enough that it seems like a part of English, you should not italicize. That’s why you usually won’t see expressions like vice versa, et cetera, and pro bono italicized.
There is definitely an element of subjectivity here. How do you decide, for instance, if a word is “familiar” to the average English speaker? The Chicago Manual of Style says that you should look it up in Merriam-Webster’s and if it is there, you don’t italicize.
So, how many of these Latin phrases used in English did you actually know? Some of them are a bit tough, but I’m sure you recognized at least a few. Let me know how you fared in the comments!
And, while you’re here – have you ever thought about learning Latin? Here are nine reasons why you absolutely should!
If you’ve been wanting to learn Latin but just don’t know how to get started, then check out my ultimate guide to Latin-learning resources.
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