For a dead language, Latin still has plenty of life in it.
A dead language is one that’s no longer used as a native tongue. Though there are many more examples around the world, the most famous ones, besides Latin, are Sanskrit and Ancient Greek.
All three of these have been extremely influential as precursors of other languages. In the case of Latin, it has spawned a whole family of European-born Romance languages, like French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian. And either directly or by way of (mainly) French and Spanish, it has added more words to English than any other one — and will doubtless continue to nourish our language with new coinages or new meanings for older words as time goes by. (Languages that aren’t dead are very much living things, constantly growing and evolving.
Though English is considered a Germanic language, only about 26% of our words are Germanic in origin, while 29% come straight from Latin and another 29% derive from French (including Anglo-French, also called Anglo-Norman).
Many words in common use in English mean the same thing they meant to the Ancient Romans, or something closely related — among them alibi, alias, agenda, alma mater, bonus, census, facsimile, veto, vice versa, and verbatim — and are spelled exactly the same way. And unlike many words borrowed from French (coiffeur, maneuver, bouillabaisse), their spelling is usually straightforward. These are words commonly misspelled in English.
In addition to single words, sometimes we use Latin phrases that express meanings more succinctly or memorably than their English equivalents might. Acclaimed chef Thomas Keller called one of his Napa Valley restaurants Ad Hoc, meaning “for this” — that is, for a specific purpose — because it was originally planned to be a temporary place-holder while he developed another restaurant concept for the space. Many moviegoers learned the phrase “carpe diem” — literally “seize the day” — from an impassioned speech given by the teacher Robin Williams portrayed in the film “Dead Poets Society.”
Knowing the definitions of such phrases doesn’t mean you should drop them into conversation every chance you get. That can easily end up sounding pretentious, or just plain silly. But it’s important to know them, because you’ll see or hear them elsewhere on occasion — and maybe sometimes find an opportunity to use one or more sensibly yourself.
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