Latin is a language;
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it’s killing me!
—Traditional schoolboy protest chant—
What Is a Dead Language?
Dead languages are no longer spoken by a native population. However, unlike extinct languages, dead languages are still studied, read, and even spoken in specific situations. Ecclesiastical Latin is still alive and kicking in the Catholic Church; in fact, it’s one of the official languages of the Holy See, and you can view the Vatican’s official website in Latin.
A Brief History of Latin
Latin, originally spoken by the citizens of the Roman Empire, was a living language until about 550 AD. After the fall of Rome, the language was preserved by monks and scholars who copied sacred and philosophical texts. Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the educated elite, an exclusive club that didn’t allow girls…or peasants. However, as literacy became more widespread, people began to write and read in their native languages. Universities in Europe continued to require the study of Latin—a tradition of classical scholarship that continues to today—to the chagrin of many centuries of college kids.
Even if you didn’t study Latin in school, chances are you know more of it than you think. Latin is the root of the Romance languages—French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.—and heavily influenced English. In addition, we’ve borrowed many words and phrases directly from this so-called dead language.
Most medical terms are Latin or Greek, presumably as a leftover from the days when scholarly texts were written exclusively in the ancient languages. Thanks to medical soaps like Grey’s Anatomy, many of these words have become familiar even to those outside of the medical profession.
- Subpoena: “Under penalty.”
- Caveat Emptor: “Let the buyer beware.”
- Habeas Corpus: literally “have the body,” it means that you’re required to physically appear in court.
- Pro Bono: “For the good,” although it’s usually used to mean “for free.”
- Curriculum/Curricula, Syllabus/Syllabi: Course and lessons plans still get Latin labels in most academic institutions.
- Ergo: Therefore. Use it when you want to feel extra fancy.
- Cogito Ergo Sum: “I think, therefore I am.” The famous quote is from philosopher Rene Descartes.
- Id Est: “That is.” Abbreviated i.e., it’s used to mean “in other words.”
- Exempli Gratia: “For example.” Abbreviated as e.g.
- Et Cetera: “And the rest.” Usually abbreviated etc., this is perhaps the most commonly used Latin phrase in English.
- Quid Pro Quo: “This for that.” Essentially, I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.
- Per Diem: “By the day.” Usually used to mean a daily charge or spending limit.
- Pro Rata: To charge at a proportional rate, as in a reduced fee for a partial month’s rent. Often misquoted as “pro rated.”
- Bona Fide: “In good faith.” The genuine article.
For a list of conversational (and occasionally insulting) Latin phrases to impress your friends—if you’re friends with a bunch of classics professors, anyway—check out this list.
- Carpe Diem: Seize the day!
- Tempus Fugit: Time flies. Fun optional.
- Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered. Attributed to Julius Caesar, quoted by everyone ever.
- In vino veritas: In wine there is truth. Even Pliny the Elder knew that getting drunk results in drunk dialing your ex.
- E pluribus unum: “Out of one, many.” Found on US currency, it means a country united. Not to be confused with Spock’s advice from The Wrath of Khan, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
This Halloween if you see a zombie in a toga howling for “cerebra,” don’t worry; it’s just the undead language on the prowl.