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. 161 BCE), a work by the Roman playwright Terence—was 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 264-146 BCE, 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 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 like-minded 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, 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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hannibal was a Carthaginian military commander during the Punic Wars who, in the early 2nd century BCE, 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 390 BCE, 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 CE.

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.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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