Bill Casselman

Latin Sayings Common in Everyday English

At the Wording Desk

Increase your vocabulary learning common Latin sayings used in English

Cicero May Circumvolve in his Sepulchre !

Latin!? Who gives a high English mark for that dusty, dead Roman lingo? Perhaps a corrective statistic or two might help assuage such belligerent ignorance? 60 percent of all English words have Latin or Greek roots. In scientific and technological vocabulary, over 90 percent of terms are Latin and Greek. Another ten percent of all Latin words have seeped into English by means of French borrowings. 95 percent of all French words are Latin-based. Therefore, ignore Latin at peril of your ability to communicate in modern English.

But I can still sympathize slightly with that old Edwardian rhyme of British schoolboys:

O Latin is a dead tongue, as dead as it can be.
It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.
Dead are they who wrote it; dead are they who spoke it;
Dying are they who learn it—
Blessed death, they earn it!

Could he but see the omnium-gatherum of Latin tags and bits on offer here by me, ancient lawyer and orator Cicero would circumvolve in his sepulchre, that is, turn over in his grave. I rejigged the common English phrasal verb into sibilant Latin-based English words.

Even modest readers who move their lips while fighting through the label on a can of soup know a few Latin tags. Caveat emptor ‘let the buyer beware’ is widely familiar.

You might be bouleversé (French but used in elite English to mean ‘overwhelmed,’ from Old French bouleverser ‘to overturn’ from Latin bulla ‘ball’ + Latin versare ‘to turn’) that is, quite shocked to learn how many pure Latin terms are embedded in your own speech of everyday English.

Consider only ad hoc, ad nauseam, affidavit, agenda, alias, alibi, alumni, census, de facto, ergo, per capita, post-mortem, status quo, terra firma, verbatim, versus, veto and via. Etc. is Latin et cetera ‘and other relevant things remaining.’ How about your alter ego (Latin ‘other self’)? I hope it’s not persona non grata ‘individual who is not wanted here, one who is unwelcome.’ If things were vice versa (Latin ‘position turned’) you might be unwelcome!

Other Latin phrases have been disguised and altered by foreign tongues. Nincompoop is a British squeezing-down of non compos mentis (Latin ‘not sound of mind’).

Latin Phrases Every English Speaker Should Know

In vino veritas
‘In wine, there is truth.’
It suggests that a person in their cups reveals the truth about themselves. Police and psychiatrists claim they do not. An elite but interesting synonym for “in their cups” is succumbed to an interpoculary stupor. Latin inter ‘between, among, within’ + Latin poculum ‘wine cup.’ Okay, I admit I coined the adjective interpoculary from the established phrase inter pocula ‘among the cups’ that is ‘in the midst of a drinking bout.’

Cogito ergo sum.
‘I think, therefore I am.’
French philosopher Descartes’ famous formula of 1641 CE attempting to prove his own existence.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
‘It is a sweet and glorious thing to die for one’s country.’
From Horace, Odes III, 2, 13. First World War British poet Wilfred Owen called this martial nonsense ‘the old lie’ but still he used it as the title of his anti-war poem "Dulce et Decorum Est."

Quod erat demonstrandum (usually abbreviated as QED)
‘which ought to have been demonstrated by what preceded’
The abbreviation is often written after a mathematical proof.

Tempus fugit.
‘Time flies.’ This Latin phrase from book 3 of the Roman poet Virgil’s meditations on farming, The Georgics, appears there as fugit inreparabile tempus ‘irretrievable time flees away.’ It can mean ‘time is wasting’ or be a comment on how quickly the temporal river carries us all away to oblivion.

Veni, vidi, vici.
‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’
Julius Caesar sent this message to the Roman Senate after his victorious battle in 47 BC against King Pharnaces II. Its vaunting terseness is Caesar wagging his military dick like the boastful fascist braggart he was.

Nulla dies sine linea 
'Not a day without a line'
The quote comes to us from that gabby old busybody and encyclopedist of ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder, who translated it from the Greek of the artist Apeles and quoted it in Pliny’s Natural History, 35.36. Apeles meant it as advice to painters but it is equally apt for avid language students and workaholic writers. Nulla dies sine linea. Don’t let a day pass without writing or reading a line of a language you love and use.

Panem et circenses
Customarily translated as ‘bread and circuses,’ an apter rendering is ‘bread and chariot races,’ the better meaning of the ancient Roman word circus which refers, in this quotation from the satirical Roman poet Juvenal, strictly to the Circus Maximus, the first and largest stadium for races and public games in the Roman Empire, able to seat 150,000 spectators.

Nowadays ‘bread and circuses’ or ‘panem et circenses’ is a sarcastic reference to quick fixes to public unrest, such as massive welfare or tax relief. The ancient Romans kept the starving peasants docile by handing out free food and offering free entrance to chariot races and gladiatorial contests. Today governments are no less devious and guileful in hiding from the masses true reasons for their impoverished plight.

Et in Arcadia Ego
Here is a resonant Latin phrase made up not by ancient Romans but by a French painter. Arcadia was a rural region of Ancient Greece, whose inhabitants—chiefly shepherds and farmers—were seen as living a quiet, idyllic life away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Athens.

The Latin motto et in Arcadia ego, "even in Arcadia, here I am," comes from the title of a painting by the French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) that depicted four Arcadian shepherds attending the tomb of a local man. Although precisely what Poussin meant the title to imply is hotly debated, the phrase is often interpreted as a reminder that no matter how good someone else’s life appears to be, compared to your own, we all eventually suffer the same fate, because the ego, the ‘I’ in the quotation is Death.

Brideshead Revisited is one of the best novels of the twentieth century, written by Evelyn Waugh in simple, clear, exquisite English prose. Waugh named Book One “Et in Arcadia Ego.” We know novelist Waugh was aware of Poussin’s morbid interpretation of the phrase because his protagonist, a future painter Charles Ryder, has in his student room a skull bearing the Latin phrase. But Waugh meant it also to signify that once, in his first great adolescent love affair, Charles Ryder was in an Arcadian paradise.

I dwell upon multiple cultural references to show the reader that a knowledge of Latin helps anchor an explorer of the roots of modern Western European civilization. Is such civilization worth knowing as well as one might know computer war games? Really! I shall quote Lord Kenneth Clark in his epic tome, Civilisation: “I believe order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must try to learn from history.”

The First Arcadia:
A Brief Detour to Trumpet My Own New Etymology of Arcadia.


The Latin-speaking Romans borrowed the word Arcadia from the ancient Greeks who used it to denote a geographic area of mountainous forest in the centre of the Peloponnese. For Greek pastoral poets like Theocritus, Arcadia was a symbol of rural simplicity and the joys of the shepherd's life, tending flocks and making music all the day long with flute and pipes. It is probably the source of one of the oldest jokes in the European tradition. What do you call an Arcadian with forty mistresses? A shepherd.

The mythic fertility god Pan haunted the caves and streams of Arcady. Sportive nymphs bounded happily through upland pastures and centaurs frisked in the clover.

Arcadia was such an evocative token of pastoral ease that it entered all the later languages of Europe. Although the precise origin of the word is lost, a study of classical Greek makes clear the mnemonic reverberations that Arcadia set off when an ancient Greek speaker heard the word. Ancient Greeks perceived similarities in its sound to arkys ‘a hunter’s snare or net.’ Arcadia was the stomping grounds of the goddess Artemis, the virgin huntress. It reminded the Greeks also of their verb arkein ‘to be strong, to endure, to be sufficient,’ and its common impersonal form, arkei moi  ‘it's enough for me; I'm happy, content.’

Is all Latin written in a mode of grim practicality? Did ancient Roman writers ever cavort in phrases of sportive jest? Of course! Read this Latin sentence aloud:
O Tite, tute, Tati, tibi tanta, tyranne, tulisti.
‘Oh Titus Tatius, you tyrant, you yourself have caused so many of your own afflictions and problems.’

A tongue-twisting bit of alliteration from the very early Latin poet Ennius, in a playful mood. Titus Tatius was not a real person but a legendary king of the Sabines, a tribe who attacked Rome early in its history when it was still a mere town on a hill in central Italy. According to legend he brought destruction upon his head by his own folly.


While this jesting mode of Latinity sits so lightly upon us, let us don togae and set off with friends along some cypress-sentineled pathway, to imbibe, as we go, a cup of fine Falernian wine. Or as the ancient Romans might have said, “Nunc est bibendum.” ‘Now it is fitting to drink.’ A wee moistening by the fermented grape shall not pollute this dry tongue.



Bill Casselman

April 28, 2016

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