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20 Latin Phrases You Should Be Using

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You’d probably be surprised by how much Latin you actually already know. Hundreds of words—like memo, alibi, agenda, census, veto, alias, via, alumni, affidavit and versus—are all used in everyday English, as are abbreviations like i.e. (id est, "that is") and etc. (et cetera, "and the rest"). Even some entire Latin phrases have become so naturalized in English that we use them, in full, without a second thought—like bona fide (literally "in good faith"), alter ego ("other self"), persona non grata ("unwelcome person"), vice versa ("position turned"), carpe diem ("seize the day"), cum laude ("with praise"), alma mater ("nourishing mother"), and quid pro quo ("something for something," "this for that").

Besides fairly commonplace examples like these, however, English has adopted a number of much less familiar Latin phrases and expressions that go criminally underused—20 examples of which are listed here. So next time you spot a misbehaving child, or you want to seize the night rather than the day, you’ll have the perfect phrase at hand.

1. AURIBUS TENEO LUPUM

It might seem odd to say that you’re "holding a wolf by the ears," but auribus teneo lupum—a line taken from Phormio (c.161BC), a work by the Roman playwright Terence—was once a popular proverb in Ancient Rome. Like "holding a tiger by the tail," it is used to describe an unsustainable situation, and in particular one in which both doing nothing and doing something to resolve it are equally risky.

2. BARBA TENUS SAPIENTES

A man described as barba tenus sapientes is literally said to be "wise as far as his beard"—or, in other words, he might look intelligent but he’s actually far from it. This is just one of a number of phrases that show how the Romans associated beards with intelligence, alongside barba non facit philosophum, "a beard does not make a philosopher," and barba crescit caput nescit, meaning "the beard grows, but the head doesn’t grow wiser."

3. BRUTUM FULMEN

Apparently coined by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, a brutum fulmen is a harmless or empty threat. It literally means "senseless thunderbolt."

4. CAESAR NON SUPRA GRAMMATICOS

In a speech to the Council of Constance in 1414, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg happened to use the Latin word schisma, meaning "schism." Unfortunately for him, he muddled up its gender—schisma should be a neuter word, but he used it as if it were feminine. When the error was pointed out to him, Sigismund angrily proclaimed that because he was Emperor, even if the word was neuter (which it was) it would be feminine from now on, at which point one member of the Council supposedly stood and replied, "Caesar non supra grammaticos"—or "the Emperor is not above the grammarians." The phrase quickly became a popular proverbial defence of the importance of good grammar and spelling.

5. CARPE NOCTEM

Carpe noctem is essentially the nocturnal equivalent of carpe diem and so literally means "seize the night." It too is used to encourage someone to make the most of their time, often in the sense of working into the early hours of the morning to get something finished, or else enjoying themselves in the evening once a hard day’s work is done.

6. CARTHAGO DELENDA EST

At the height of the Punic Wars, fought between Rome and Carthage from 264-146BC, a Roman statesman named Cato the Elder had a habit of ending all of his speeches to the Senate with the motto "Carthago delenda est," or "Carthage must be destroyed." His words quickly became a popular and rousing motto in Ancient Rome, and nowadays can be used figuratively to express your absolute support for an idea or course of action.

7. CASTIGAT RIDENDO MORES

Literally meaning "laughing corrects morals," the Latin motto castigat ridendo mores was coined by the French poet Jean de Santeul (1630-97), who intended it to show how useful satirical writing is in affecting social change: the best way to change the rules is by pointing out how absurd they are. 

8. CORVUS OCULUM CORVI NON ERUIT

Picture a politician sticking up for a colleague even in the face of widespread criticism—that’s a fine example of the old Latin saying corvus oculum corvi non eruit, meaning "a crow will not pull out the eye of another crow." It’s essentially the same as "honor amongst thieves," and refers to complete solidarity amongst a group of likeminded people regardless of the consequences or condemnation.

9. CUI BONO?

Literally meaning "who benefits?," cui bono? is a rhetorical Latin legal phrase used to imply that whoever appears to have the most to gain from a crime is probably the culprit. More generally, it’s used in English to question the meaningfulness or advantages of carrying something out.

10. ET IN ARCADIA EGO

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, but it’s 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—the "I" in question is Death.

11. EX NIHILO NIHIL FIT

Supposedly a quote by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, the Latin motto ex nihilo nihil fit means "nothing comes from nothing," and is used as a reminder that hard work is always required in order to achieve something.

12. FELIX CULPA

Originally a religious term referring to consequences of the Biblical Fall of Man and the sins of Adam and Eve, a felix culpa is literally a "happy fault"—an apparent mistake or disaster that actually ends up having surprisingly beneficial consequences.

13. HANNIBAL AD PORTAS

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Hannibal was a Carthaginian military commander during the Punic Wars who, in the early 2nd century BC, led numerous devastating attacks against the Roman Empire. To the people of Rome, the threat of an attack from Hannibal soon made him something of a bogeyman, and as a result Roman parents would often tell their unruly children that Hanniabl ad portas—"Hannibal is at the gates"—in order to scare them into behaving properly.

14. HIC MANEBIMUS OPTIME

When the Gauls invaded Rome in 390BC, the Senate met to discuss whether or not to abandon the city and flee to the relative safety of nearby Veii. According to the Roman historian Livy, a centurion named Marcus Furius Camillus stood to address the Senate and exclaimed, "hic manebimus optime!"—or "here we will stay, most excellently!" His words soon came to be used figuratively of anyone’s unfaltering and dedicated intention to remain in place despite adverse circumstances.

15. HOMO SUM HUMANI A ME NIHIL ALIENUM PUTO

Homo sum humani a me nihil alienum puto is another line lifted from one of the works of the Roman dramatist Terence, in this case his play Heauton Timorumenos, or The Self-Tormentor. Originally in the play the line was merely one character’s response to being told to mind his own business, but given its literal meaning—"I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me"—it has since come to be used as a motto advocating respect for people and cultures that appear different from your own.

16. IGNOTUM PER IGNOTIUS

Also known as obscurum per obscurius ("the obscure by the more obscure"), the phrase ignotum per ignotius ("the unknown by the more unknown") refers to an unhelpful explanation that is just as (or even more) confusing than that which it is attempting to explain—for instance, imagine someone asking you what obscurum per obscurius meant, and you telling them that it means the same as ignotum per ignotius.

17. IMPERIUM IN IMPERIO

Meaning "an empire within an empire," the Latin phrase imperium in imperio can be used literally to refer to a self-governing state confined within a larger one; or to a rebellious state fighting for independence from another; or, more figuratively, to a department or a group of workers in an organization who, despite appearing to work for themselves, are still answerable to an even larger corporation. 

18. PANEM ET CIRCENSES

Panem et circenses, meaning "bread and circuses," refers to the basic needs and desires—i.e., food and entertainment—required to keep a person happy. It is taken from the Satires, a collection of satirical poems by the Roman poet Juvenal written in the 1st-2nd century AD.

19. VELOCIUS QUAM ASPARAGI COQUANTUR

According to the Romans, when something happens quickly it happens velocius quam asparagi conquantur —or "faster than you can cook asparagus." Some sources attribute this phrase to the Roman Emperor Augustus, but there’s sadly little proof that that’s the case.

20. VOX NIHILI

While vox populi is "the voice of the people," vox nihili is literally "the voice of nothing." It describes an utterly pointless or meaningless statement, but can also be used for the kind of spelling mistake or textual error in which one word is mistakenly substituted for another—like an Autocorrect mistake.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

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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Neighborhoods
How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.

1. LONGFELLOW, MINNEAPOLIS

If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.

2. FROGTOWN, ST. PAUL

Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.

3. POWDERHORN PARK, MINNEAPOLIS

What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.

4. COMO PARK, ST. PAUL

That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.

5. HOLLAND, MINNEAPOLIS

You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”

6. DAYTON’S BLUFF, ST. PAUL

Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.

7. BELTRAMI, MINNEAPOLIS

Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.

8. PAYNE-PHALEN, ST. PAUL

Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.

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