- 01. "Alea jacta est": The die is cast
- 02. "Ad vitam aeternam": To eternal life
- 03. "Amicus Plato sed major amicus veritas": Plato is my friend, but the truth is a better friend
- 04. "Audaces fortuna juvat": Fortune favours the bold
- 05. "Aurea mediocritas": The golden mean
- 06. "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant": Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you
- 07. "Beati pauperes spiritu": Blessed in spirit (are) the poor
- 08. "Carpe diem": Seize the day
- 09. "Cogito, ergo sum": I think, therefore I am
- 10. "Deus ex machina": God from the machine
- 11. "Errare humanum est": To err is human
- 12. Ex nihilo nihil: Nothing comes from nothing
- 13. "Fluctuat nec mergitur": (She) is tossed by the waves but doesn't sink
- 14. Habeas corpus: that you have the body
- 15. "Homo homini lupus": A man is a wolf to another man
- 16. "Nosce te ipsum": Know thyself
- 17. "Panem and circenses": bread and circuses
- 18. "Quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari": That which is God's, to God; that which is Caesar's, to Caesar
- 19. "Veto": I forbid
- 20. "Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat": They all wound and the last kills
A priori, et cetera, a posteriori, alter ego, ad hoc, de facto, nota bene, mea culpa, etc.
Do you know how many Latin terms from the Roman language have made their way into our vocabulary? You hear quotes in the Latin language more often than one time a day, probably in a motto or in law / legal or medical work. The irony is, the word motto itself isn't even a translation, and comes directly from Latin itself, being one of the most commonly heard things that remains from the Latin language in this day and age.
We do not know the exact number of terms or proverbs that come from Latin, but there are bound to be more than a hundred Latin phrases commonly used in English today. This is understandable considering it's the source language for many major global tongues on Earth today, including English, French, and Spanish, despite the die out of all of its native speakers.
Many early pieces of writing were conducted exclusively in Latin, with no translation into English appearing for the Bible until the King James version in 1611. This meant that you had to know the correct word or phrases in order to be able to talk to or about God, bringing Latin high prestige. Latin was also the common thing for literate people to need in their life to attend university or get an education in the 14th-18th centuries, as it was even the de facto language for the dictionary to be published in.
Nowadays, Latin offers us a source of ancient wisdom, and with no native speakers left alive, it is technically "complete" as a language since it's no longer evolving. Many Latin proverbs are still commonly used to this day and don't have an equivalent translation in English. It's therefore useful for you to understand their use and context to effectively enhance your English in our own time period.
Here, we list 20 Latin proverbs, some used often, others only applying to more obscure things. See how many you know already.
"Alea jacta est": The die is cast
Certainly one of the best known Latin quotes. These are the words uttered by Caesar when crossing the Rubicon with his army in spite of the fact that a Roman law stipulated that he had to discharge his soldiers before crossing the river.
By disrespecting this order, Caesar was brought into conflict with the Roman Senate. The government considered his actions an insurrection, treason and declaration of war. The idiom "crossing the Rubicon" is also used in English to suggest passing a point of no return. Another way of phrasing this is with the popular expression "come what may".
"Ad vitam aeternam": To eternal life
We can swear a love or friendship "ad vitam aeternam", one that is forever and ever.
According to beliefs and traditions, this proverb is rather pessimistic as it implies that we are dead. Indeed, eternal life is linked to Paradise for worthy Christians or eternal hell for sinners. Another way of translating this phrase is "to life everlasting".
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"Amicus Plato sed major amicus veritas": Plato is my friend, but the truth is a better friend
This is a quote from Aristotle found in his book Nicomachean Ethics. As a disciple of Plato, he was a great admirer of the philosopher. However, despite his admiration, he did not blindly follow the words of his master but dared to question his teaching in order to come closer to the truth.
Today these words can be used by any person questioning or taking a stand against their teacher.
"Audaces fortuna juvat": Fortune favours the bold
Adapted from Virgil's Aeneid, this proverb, also expressed as "Fortune favours the brave" and "Fortune favours the strong", encourages us to force a change and brave the difficulties. It is unsurprising that historically this phrase has been often used in a military context. "Fortuna" in English refers to luck or its personification, a Roman goddess.
Audacity, however, is not always synonymous with success, but like all proverbs, you must know how to use it wisely.
"Aurea mediocritas": The golden mean
Taken from the Odes of Horace, Latin poet, these verses are not pejorative as one might think. The "golden mean" or "golden middle way" implies that one should be content to lead a peaceful life without the hassle and worry that opulence would bring.
Excess of any variety is seen as dangerous, life is therefore about finding the right balance. This proverb is similar to the more commonly used phrase in English "a happy medium".
"Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant": Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you
These words were chanted by the gladiators in front of the Imperial Box before the start of the Games according to Suetonius. The Romans loved the Circus Games, especially the very bloody fighting of death row prisoners, slaves or even voluntary barbarians.
If the gladiator lost, it was the public who decided whether he lived or died by lowering or raising their thumb. The motto recalls the pride of the gladiators who had only one thing to save: their lives.
"Beati pauperes spiritu": Blessed in spirit (are) the poor
The seventh verse from the Sermon on the Mount (Gospel according to Matthew, V, 3) and the seventh Beatitude, today these words commend those that succeed without intelligence. The phrase teaches us to be poor in the economic sense rather than a spiritual sense by learning to detach oneself from worldly goods.
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"Carpe diem": Seize the day
From a poem by Horace, the complete phrase is "carpe diem quam minimum credula postero", literally meaning "be the least credulous possible for the next day". It is generally translated into English as "live in the present without worrying about tomorrow" to keep the poetic genre.
Horace was known to be an epicurean, and therefore enjoyed the pleasures life had to offer him. This same idea comes up in Ronsard's poems, and in particular Sonnets for Helen: "Gather today the roses of life". It can be interpreted as an incentive to enjoy every moment of such a short human existence.
"Cogito, ergo sum": I think, therefore I am
This quote is a Latin philosophical proposition coined by René Descartes in his Discourse of Method (1637) and appeared originally in French in the original French "je pense, donc je suis". This idea is also referred to as "the cogito".
The idea is that existence is the only certainty that resists any doubt. Only the existence of the thinking human being is certain at the beginning. Descartes taught to completely reform knowledge.
"Deus ex machina": God from the machine
Originally a translation of a Greek expression, it makes reference to the theatre and the intervention of gods or goddesses, brought over the stage using special equipment. The divine intervention solved all the problems at the end of a play.
Nowadays, the expression is used when a situation is resolved thanks to an element that was unexpected until that moment. The expression is often used pejoratively for an incredible miracle which is poorly integrated into a story to make a happy ending.
"Errare humanum est": To err is human
The complete phrase is "errare humanum est, persevare diabolicum", which means "to err is human, but to persist in error (out of pride) is diabolical". It is often attributed to Seneca, but it know to have existed before.
It is a philosophical maxim to forgive the mistakes made by humans who are not perfect. However, the maxim also about understanding our errors so we can improve. The second part explains this point well: being stubborn about your errors is inexcusable.
The maxim can be compared to the writing of a more recent author, John Powell, who says that "the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing".
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Ex nihilo nihil: Nothing comes from nothing
These verses are attributed to Lucretius and were taken up by Voltaire in his book Philosophical Dictionary. Speaking of a dictionary, have you ever thought of consulting an English Latin dictionary to help you with your revision?
The complete phrase is "ex nihilo nihil, in nihilum posse reverti", which means "nothing comes from nothing, nothing can revert to nothing". Nothing can be created or destroyed.
In English, meaning has evolved far from the original translation: "He that wills the end wills the means". If you are determined to do something, you will find a way.
"Fluctuat nec mergitur": (She) is tossed by the waves but doesn't sink
A motto used by the city of Paris since 1358 by the Guild of Boatsmen along the river Seine. At a time when access to the open sea was crucial for the city, boats were the most effective means of transport.
It became the official motto of Paris in 1853, it accompanies the ship on the coat of arms of Paris. Henri Tausin explains perfectly why this motto was chosen.
The motto recalls "the dangers that Paris has seen, the terrible revolutions that have agitated it, the crises of all kinds it has suffered" and expresses "the idea of vitality, strength, perpetuity that characterises the long and glorious existence of this city."
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Habeas corpus: that you have the body
The full Latin phrase is a translation "that you have the person for the purpose of subjecting him/her to (examination)" (habeas corpus ad subjiciendum). It is an Anglo-Saxon institution that serves to guarantee the individual freedom of citizens by protecting him/her against arbitrary arrests.
Voted in 1679 in England, the Habeas Corpus Act is a reaction to attempts at monarchical absolutism. This is one of the phrases that we do hear rather commonly and refers to the list of things that, in legal terms, gives people equivalent value and right in the eyes of the in several aspects of their life.
"Homo homini lupus": A man is a wolf to another man
"Man is wolf to man" means that man is his own worst enemy. One often refers to this quote in Latin class, as a term to warn a person that the source of their misery may be a thing that they've put in place themselves.
We see it used for the first time by Plautus in his comedy Asinaria, and despite the example of self-reflexive writing being intended to refer to ancient life, the meaning is still clear in our time despite any edit or translation the work may receive.
From a philosophical point of view, it is a pessimistic view of man, an unscrupulous, selfish and individualistic being, who does not hesitate to destroy others for his own success.
"Nosce te ipsum": Know thyself
Translated from ancient Greek, this expression is one of the three precepts engraved at the entrance of the temple of Delphi and the oldest according to Plato. People love this phrase, and we can see an example of it in such diverse settings as university buildings, inscriptions on dictionaries, and even in manifestos to justify going to war.
It is a sacred formula of humanism that requires man to become aware of his own existence and consciousness. "Know Thyself" invites you to get to know one another better and be aware of your strengths and weaknesses.
A rather complex sentence, which stresses the importance of knowing the Latin declensions by heart; do as a Roman does and find things in your life that bring you love and truth rather than die knowing your day to day was purely just for the purpose of existing.
"Panem and circenses": bread and circuses
Literally "bread and circus games", the Latin expression denounces the distribution of bread during games in order to attract the good graces of the people. The expression is taken from Juvenal's Satire X. This is a good example of the arbitrary nature of the law in Roman time, with many important political and legal figures including Caesar aiming to appeal to the lowest common denominator when dealing with common people in order to distract them from bigger issues such as war and state spending.
Today, it is used to show the skewed relationship between people who are satisfied with "bread and games" without worrying about larger issues and the political powers that may be tempted to exploit these trends in the short-term. This phrase is common to hear in a legal or political setting in our day and age, especially when you hear or see someone stalling for time by skirting important issues.
"Quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari": That which is God's, to God; that which is Caesar's, to Caesar
Today this Latin quotation is used to say that we must recognise the responsibility of a gesture to a person whether positive or negative. The ancient source of this quote definitely has a religious bent, and it is clear that any writing by man at this time always spoke in self-congratulatory terms.
According to the Gospel, it was Jesus who said "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" after the Pharicians asked him if they should pay the tax. This saying will no doubt be familiar, and following edit after edit of the saying over the course of the last two thousand years, the translation of the quote into English has evolved into our modern equivalent: There's only two things guaranteed in life - death and taxes. Talk about quid pro quo, huh?
"Veto": I forbid
Originally, the veto was a way of opposing a magistrate, regardless of rank, or a decision of the Roman Senate. The term veto does still exist in its original form in the English dictionary today, yet it's become detached from its source in Latin.
Today, the term still denotes opposition to a decision. It is used by the United Nations Security Council for countries contesting decisions. If a country exercises their veto power, the proposal is rejected.
You will find similar quotes in the dozens of Latin languages used throughout the world today!
"Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat": They all wound and the last kills
This Latin expression is often inscribed on old sundials or public clocks. It is a way of remembering the passing of time and that every hour could be someone's last. When one refers to such quotes, it is particularly haunting, especially considering the way that the ancient language has stood the test of time to remain prestigious today. Though it's become a mainstay of the upper class, it's still a vitally useful tool for law and medicine, and understanding the fundamental origins of science. You will probably have the chance to study Latin if you go to university in any case, so if you're interested in the legal, medical, or even linguistic fields, it could be a good pathway to consider to boost your work and personal credentials.
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