Welcome 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 infinitum. Ad 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 fide. Bona 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.
Carpe 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?