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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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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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