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.
Ad hoc (ad hock)
“For this.” Describes something formed or created for a specific purpose. Examples: An ad hoc committee; dealing with problems on an ad hoc basis.
Ad infinitum (odd in-fin-EE-tum)
“To infinity.” Describes something that goes on forever (or seems to). Example: The politician babbled on ad infinitum.
A priori (ah pree-OR-ee)
“From the earliest.” Describes something known (or not known) independent of experience. Example: There is no a priori reason to assume that acupuncture is useless.
Carpe diem (CAR-pay DEE-um)
“Seize the day.” In other words, live for today.
Caveat emptor (CAH-vee-aht EMP-tor)
“Let the buyer beware.” A phrase reminding the customer that it is his or her responsibility to make sure the item for sale is as advertised.
Compos mentis (COM-pohs MEN-tiss)
“Of sound mind.” Sane, or able to think clearly. The opposite is “non compos mentis,” as in “I tried to reason with him, but he was non compos mentis at the time.”
Cui bono (kwee BO-no)
“Benefit to whom?” The principle that whoever has the most to gain from something is probably the one who instigated it. Example: Why did the senator vote for that law? Ask yourself cui bono?
De facto (day FAK-toe)
“From fact.” In reality, or in existing whether or not it is logical or legal. Example: Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, de facto segregation continued in much of the country.
Deus ex machina (DAY-us ex MACK-ee-nah)
“God out of a machine.” Describes a solution (or the agent of a solution) to a difficult problem that seems to come out of nowhere or requires a suspension of disbelief. Example: In Stephen King’s novel “The Stand,” a deus ex machina — in this case, the literal hand of God — comes down and detonates a nuclear weapon, destroying most of the villains.
In flagrante delicto (in flah-GRAUNT-ay de-LICK-toe)
“In the burning crime.” Another way of saying “caught in the act” or “caught red-handed” — sometimes, but not always, describing the discovery of someone having (usually illicit) sex. A less racy example: She caught the thief in flagrante delicto, going through purses in the locker room.
In loco parentis (in LOE-co par-EN-tiss)
“In place of the parents.” In other words, assuming the duties or position of a parent. Example: The school principal made the decision to send the student to the hospital in loco parentis.
In media res (in MAY-dee-ah rez)
“Into the middle of a thing.” Usually used to describe a story or film that begins in the middle of the action instead of building up to it slowly. A classic example is “The Odyssey,” which begins when most of the hero’s saga is over, and then fills in the tale with flashbacks; film buffs will recognize the device from “Citizen Kane.”
In situ (in SEE-too)
“In the place.” Meaning in the original place, not moved elsewhere. Example: Instead of taking over the conference room, we held the meeting in situ in the boss’s office.
Ipso facto (IP-so FACT-oh)
“By the fact itself.” Another way of saying it is “In and of itself.” Example: Some people believe that politicians are ipso facto dishonest.
Mea culpa (MAY-uh CULL-pah)
“My fault.” An acknowledgement of guilt. Also used as a compound noun. Example: The murderer’s mea culpa sounded insincere.
“Remarkably [or marvelously] to say.” Usually describes something unexpected or unlikely. Example: I didn’t study a bit, but, mirabile dictu, I got an A anyway.
Ne plus ultra (nay ploose UL-trah)
“None farther.” Describes something that is the best or without equal. Example: Many consider Charlie Parker to have been the ne plus ultra of jazz saxophonists.
O tempora, o mores (Oh TEMP-or-ah oh MOR-ez)
“Oh, the times; oh, the behavior [or customs].” A negative or frustrated comment about the way people act, first credited to the Roman orator Cicero. Example: His own party doesn’t seem to care what Donald Trump does, no matter how inappropriate. O tempora, o mores.
Per se (pair say)
“By [or through] itself.” Example: There’s nothing wrong with texting per se, but you should never do it while driving.
Persona non grata (pair-SO-nah non GRAH-tah)
“Person not pleasing.” Describes someone who isn’t welcome or has been expelled from a place. Example: After his rude remarks to the king, the ambassador was declared persona non grata and had to leave the country.
Q.E.D. (cue ee dee)
An abbreviation for “quod erat demonstrandum” — “which had to be demonstrated.” It is typically appended to the end of a mathematical proof or philosophical argument indicating that it demonstrated what it set out to show. Non-formal example: Q.E.D., John. You were right after all.
Quid pro quo (kwid pro kwo)
“This for that.” Something exchanged for something else. Example: Many successful partnerships are based on quid pro quo.
Requiescat in pace (reck-wee-ESS-caut in PAH-chay)
“He rests in peace.” Commonly abbreviated to R.I.P. Said upon the death of someone.
Sic transit gloria mundi (sick TRANZ-it GLOR-ee-ah MOON-dee)
“Thus passes the glory of the world.” Another way of saying that fame is fleeting. Example: She was a big star in the 1960s but now nobody remembers her name — sic transit gloria mundi.
Sine qua non (SEE-nay kwa non)
“Without which not.” An essential or prerequisite. Example: Water is a sine qua non for human existence.
Sub rosa (sub ROZE-ah)
“Under the rose.” In mythology, Cupid gave Harpocrates, the god of silence, a rose so that he would not reveal the indiscretions of Venus. The flower subsequently became a symbol of confidentiality or secrecy, and today something sub rosa is done in secret. Example: The government made sub rosa efforts to renegotiate the treaty.
Sui generis (SOO-ee JEN-er-us)
“Of its own kind.” Describes something or someone unique. Example: The creations of the modernist chef were sui generis.
Summum bonum (SOO-moom BOH-nuhm)
“The greatest good” or “the best possible.” Example: We should attempt to live our best life, our summum bonum.
Tabula rasa (TAB-you-lah RAH-sa)
“Scraped [i.e., erased] tablet.” Used to describe the human mind before it has been shaped by learning and experience; also metaphorically to describe a place not yet developed. Examples: The infant brain is a tabula rasa, molded by culture. The vast riverside acreage was a tabula rasa on which the developer could create a new community.
Terra firma (TARE-uh FIRM-uh)
“Solid ground.” Used both literally and metaphorically. Examples: After the long flight, it was good to be back on terra firma. After many wild digressions, the argument drifted back to terra firma.
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