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10 Latin Phrases People Pretend to Understand

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By Kevin Fleming

Whether you're deciphering a cryptic state seal or trying to impress your Catholic in-laws, knowing some Latin has its advantages. But the operative word here is "some." We'll start you off with 10 phrases that have survived the hatchet men of time (in all their pretentious glory).

1. Caveat Emptor
"Let the buyer beware"

Before money-back guarantees and 20-year warranties, caveat emptor was indispensable advice for the consumer. These days, it'd be more fitting to have it tattooed on the foreheads of used-car salesmen, infomercial actors, and prostitutes. For extra credit points, remember that caveat often makes solo appearances at cocktail parties as a fancy term for a warning or caution. Oh, and just so you know, caveat lector means "let the reader beware."

2. Persona Non Grata
"An unacceptable person"

Remember your old college buddy, the one everybody called Chugger? Now picture him at a debutante ball, and you'll start to get a sense of someone with persona non grata status. The term is most commonly used in diplomatic circles to indicate that a person is unwelcome due to ideological differences or a breach of trust. Sometimes, the tag refers to a pariah, a ne'er-do-well, a killjoy, or an interloper, but it's always subjective. Back in 2004, Michael Moore was treated as persona non grata at the Republican National Convention. Bill O'Reilly would experience the same at Burning Man.

3. Habeas Corpus
"You have the body"

In a nutshell, habeas corpus is what separates us from savages. It's the legal principle that guarantees an inmate the right to appear before a judge in court, so it can be determined whether or not that person is being lawfully imprisoned. It's also one of the cornerstones of the American and British legal systems. Without it, tyrannical and unjust imprisonments would be possible. In situations where national security is at risk, however, habeas corpus can be suspended.

4. Cogito Ergo Sum
"I think, therefore I am"

When all those spirited mental wrestling matches you have about existentialism start growing old (yeah, right!), you can always put an end to the debate with cogito ergo sum. René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, coined the phrase as a means of justifying reality. According to him, nothing in life could be proven except one's thoughts. Well, so he thought, anyway.

5. E Pluribus Unum
"Out of many, one"

America's original national motto, e pluribus unum, was plagiarized from an ancient recipe for salad dressing. In the 18th century, haughty intellectuals were fond of this phrase. It was the kind of thing gentlemen's magazines would use to describe their year-end editions. But the term made its first appearance in Virgil's poem "Moretum" to describe salad dressing. The ingredients, he wrote, would surrender their individual aesthetic when mixed with others to form one unique, homogenous, harmonious, and tasty concoction. As a slogan, it really nailed that whole cultural melting pot thing we were going for. And while it continues to appear on U.S. coins, "In God We Trust" came along later (officially in 1956) to share the motto spotlight.

6. Quid Pro Quo
"This for that"

Given that quid pro quo refers to a deal or trade, it's no wonder the Brits nicknamed their almighty pound the "quid." And if you give someone some quid, you're going to expect some quo. The phrase often lives in the courtroom, where guilt and innocence are the currency. It's the oil that lubricates our legal system. Something of a quantified value is traded for something of equal value; elements are parted and parceled off until quid pro quo is achieved.

7. Ad Hominem
"To [attack] the man"

In the world of public discourse, ad hominem is a means of attacking one's rhetorical opponent by questioning his or her reputation or expertise rather than sticking to the issue at hand. Translation: Politicians are really good at it. People who resort to ad hominem techniques are usually derided as having a diluted argument or lack of discipline. If pressed, they'll brandish it like a saber and refuse to get back to the heart of the matter. Who said the debate team doesn't have sex appeal?

8. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
"All for the Greater Glory of God"

Ad majorem dei gloriam is often shortened to AMDG. In other words, it's the WWJD of the Jesuits, who've been drilling the mantra into their followers since (Saint) Ignatius of Loyola founded the Catholic Order in 1534. They believe all actions, big or small, should be done with AMDG in mind. Remind your Jesuit-educated buddies of this when they seem to be straying from the path. (Best used with a wink and a hint of irony.)

9. Memento Mori
"Remember, you will die"

Carpe diem is so 20th century. If you're going to suck the marrow out of life, trying doing it with the honest, irrefutable, and no less inspiring memento mori. You can interpret the phrase in two ways: Eat, drink, and party down. Or, less hedonistically, be good so you can get past the pearly gates. Naturally, the latter was the one preferred by the early Christian Church, which would use macabre art—including dancing skeletons and snuffed-out candles—to remind the faithful to forgo temporal pleasures in favor of eternal bliss in heaven.

10. Sui Generis
"Unique and unable to classify"

Frank Zappa, the VW Beetle, cheese in a can: Sui generis refers to something that's so new, so bizarre, or so rare that it defies categorization. Granted, labeling something sui generis is really just classifying the unclassifiable. But let's not over-think it. Use it at a dinner party to describe Andy Kaufman, and you impress your friends. Use it too often, and you just sound pretentious.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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