20 Latin Phrases You Should Be Using

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istock

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

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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