Et tu, Brute? Latin Phrases Even a Brute Should Learn

Wordle: Latin phrasesWelcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what we can discover. Today the topic is Latin phrases.

Latin is the basis for several languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish. But Latin also invaded the English language in a big way. Even at a time when few of us know the original meanings of these words, we utter Latin phrases quite often with their general meaning clear to the average listener. Still, let’s take a quick tour of common Latin phrases to get a grasp on their full meaning and to make sure that we spell them right.

Ad infinitumAd infinitum literally means “to infinity.” (But no, Buzz, not beyond.) This phrase is thrown out to describe something that seems endless, like a State of the Union speech or a parent lecture: “He talked and talked, ad infinitum.”

Ad nauseam. Surely, you can figure this one out. It means “to nausea.” Of course, this phrase describes when something lasts to the point you just want to vomit, like political gridlock: “Both Democrats and Republicans spouted excuses ad nauseam.”

Bona fideBona fide means “good faith,” so this Latin phrase is used to refer to good faith actions. It can also mean one’s credentials — their good faith proof — as in “What are his bona fides?” But more commonly, it’s used as an adjective to indicate that something is on the up-and-up: “I hope that car salesman gave us the bona fide scoop.” Good luck with that.

Robin Williams standing on desk, from Dead Poets Society movieCarpe diem. Thanks to Robin Williams and The Dead Poet’s Society, many of us have this one ingrained in our brains. It means “seize the day,” or literally “pluck the day,” like when it’s ripe and ready. It’s the sort of advice your friend gives you in a bar when he’s three drinks in and you’re eyeballing the prettiest girl in the place: “Go on, man, carpe diem!!!” A current slang equivalent might be YOLO (you only live once).

Ergo. Here’s an easy one: ergo means therefore. You might hear it used when someone makes an argument for something and then needs a segue word before drawing their seemingly-obvious conclusion: “But Dad, everyone else is going to the party . . . ergo, you should let me go too!” See if that works, teens. Your knowledge of Latin might be just the polish your argument needs to sway your parents.

Et cetera. This is more commonly written as etc. It’s pronounced with a soft-c: [et set-uh-ruh]. In Latin, it means “and others.” It’s used at the end of a list to keep you from going on and on and yet letting your audience know that you could continue the list if you wanted to: “Paranormal fiction deals with vampires, werewolves, angels, psychics, ghosts, etc.”

Mea culpa. You know what the word “culpable” means? Same derivative. Mea culpa means “I am to blame.” Today’s slang equivalent could be “my bad.” Some suggest that this is a phrase every husband should master within the first year of marriage. I personally think we all could stand to practice it, since we’ll invariably be met with one of those moments: “Sorry that I forgot to pay the electricity bill. Mea culpa.”

Per se. Of course the word per is all over our English language: percent, per gallon, per capita. This phrase, per se, means “by itself.” Lately, I’ve seen it written in several places as “per say.” However, it’s Latin and should be spelled accordingly: per se. This phrase refers to something on its own, without considering other factors: “It’s not that the dress makes you look fat per se . . .” (Proceed with that one very carefully.)

Quid pro quo. The Latin meaning is “something for something” or “one thing for another.” But we can also think of it as “this for that” or “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” And I’ll let the inimitable Hannibal Lecter demonstrate its proper use:

Status quo. Here’s another quo phrase. This time, it means “the state of something” or “the state in which.” It’s the way something exists right now. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not so much. How you use the phrase depends on what you want to get across: “I will not accept the status quo of you sleeping every day until noon” or “He’s taken me out every day this week, and I could get used to that status quo.”

Vice versa. Both vice and versa mean to turn, so that this Latin phrase means “to turn around.” It is used when something is true one way, and also true when flipped the other way: “A truly beautiful woman is confident, and vice versa.” Or go look up the famous quote from Dorothy Parker to her editor using the phrase vice versa. (Which is highly inappropriate, but funny nonetheless.)

And that’s it! Veni, Vidi, Vici (we came, we saw, we conquered).

Oh yeah. “Et tu, Brute?” is a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and it means “you too, Brutus?”

What Latin phrases do you find yourself using? Any others you would you add to this list? 

Sources: 50 Common Latin Phrases Every College Student Should Know; Online Etymology Dictionary

35 thoughts on “Et tu, Brute? Latin Phrases Even a Brute Should Learn

  1. I took four years of Latin, so YAY FOR THIS POST.

    Some others you see often:

    i.e. and e.g. – Id est and exempla gratia. You use i.e. as “that is” or to restate something in different words and e.g. as “for example”.

    Q.E.D – Quod erat demonstradum, “what was to be demonstrated”. Stated at the end of an argument or discussion to say “see? my point has been proven.” 🙂

    I could go on forever. Or ad nauseam at least.

    “Si vis amari, ama.” – If you wish to be loved, love.

    1. SPECIAL THANKS, Amber. I was going to mention i.e. and e.g. because I’ve looked those up ad infinitum because I keep mixing them up. This Spanish and German v Latin student will simply remember E = example = e.g.

      What’s up with the spelling on ad nauseum (as spelled by Julie, and oft used by me)? MS word doesn’t like it. It wasn’t Ad Nauseam. The spelling you used.

      1. Good heavens, Gloria, don’t trust Microsoft Word for language know-how! LOL. They get it right quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I’d like. I guess they don’t like Latin. 😉

      2. Ad nauseam (with an a) is the correct spelling because in the latin, the noun following “ad” would most likely be in the accusative case. “Nausea” is a feminine noun of the first declension, so the accusative ending is -am.

        The -um ending would be used if nausea was a second declension, masculine or neuter noun in the accusative. (which it is not)

        Latin FTW!!

  2. I like these. I used “Quaggis” in a short story about a Latin teacher and a history teacher. It means “What’s up?” BTW, I still can’t find that poem I wrote in high school that I was going to post here. I thought I saw it in my mom’s purse, but now I can’t find it. I’m on a mission, though.

      1. I agree, Julie. I forgot that my high school’s motto was “Esse Quam Videri” (I probably spelled this wrong)–to be rather than to seem to be”. I took Latin in 7th and 8th grade–I loved those classes, and my Latin teacher was a hoot.

  3. I’m glad to say that I knew all of these, but I’ve heard several of them used incorrectly over time and i.e. and e.g. that Amber mentions are often mixed up. Carpe Diem is being used far too often by people who don’t know what it really means.

    It’s interesting to note that most of these phrases are considered part of the English language today and are therefore not written in italics even though it’s a different language. That’s according to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors at least. I don’t know if US style manuals agree.

    There’s also ad hoc, which anyone who’ve ever served on a committee will probably know, and in blogland we cannot neglect mentioning ad hominem (personal) attacks. Then there’s the Latin words we don’t even know are Latin, like interim.

    My favourite Latin phrase is Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. I don’t like it so much for the philosophy behind it, as for the way it just rolls off the tongue. Latin is such a rhythmic language and it sounds nice even if you don’t have a clue what it means.

    1. Great observations. But English has borrowed so many words and expressions from other languages that using italics for foreign words might cause our writing to be peppered with italics.

      I considered including Cogito ergo sum, but I don’t hear it used that much. It is a great phrase to have at the ready, though. Thanks!

      1. And, you didn’t provide the meaning in your response, because….?

        I visit Wikipedia often enough, TYVM. Shame Creatively Sneaky doesn’t play well with Omnia vincit veritas. <=== Yes. I know that's a sentence frag. 😉

  4. I enjoyed reading this and learned something. I also liked the source link to the 50 common phrases. BTW the late editor of “Automobile” magazine used to write a column he called “Cogito ergo Zoom – I think, therefore I go fast”. 🙂

  5. I have actually used all of those, but then again, I work in the legal profession so they are more common for us than many others. We get to throw them into our briefs and other legal documents to make us sound oh so smart. And, we spell them correctly. We use things like, nunc pro tunc and et seq. (the shortened version is now commonly accepted even in the snooty Federal courts).

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    1. I used to be a legal assistant, and yep, Latin was as common as paperclips in our firm. Of course, the Latin phrase I remember more than any other is “et al.” — always useful for suing a whole bunch of people at once. 😉 Thanks, Patricia! And yeah, you do sound “oh so smart.”

  6. Good list, Julie. I’m no great latin scholar (even though I did chemistry, which has the odd phrase, or two), so I resorted to Wikipedia for a quick reference.

    Everything was looking dull until I found

    audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret

    which apparently means “slander boldly, something always sticks.”

    I may try to drop it into conversation tomorrow – which given the current situation in DC should be pretty easy 🙂


    1. I once took chemistry, and I’ve tried hard to forget the experience. Was there Latin in it? 😉

      I love that phrase you brought in, Nigel! That must be a guiding principle for political campaign managers.

  7. I knew most of these but don’t use many except for vice versa and Et cetera. Though i like Carpe diem I always seem t screw up the spelling. Oh well.

    Thanks for once again bringing us an interesting post.

  8. Funny, I use some of these in my writings and now I know the definitions and history even better. Good to know I was using these correctly!

  9. Ah, Latin! The bane of my existence. When I was in grade school, I wanted to be an altar boy, and I had to master certain responses in the language. Just about killed me. Then, after I served one Mass, they changed all the responses to English. I was told to take it in high school and was taught by a priest who was so old that it was his native tongue. He did teach us how to swear in Latin, e.g. “i ad infernum” for “go to h*ll” and “filius canis” for SOB…

    How about “sine qua non,” something (an action, condition, or ingredient) that’s essential?

    Then, my favorite first-year Latin joke: “semper ubi sub ubi.” “Semper” means “always,” “ubi” means “where,” and “sub” means “under.” String them together in the appropriate order.

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