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in: Ancient Rome, Manly Knowledge, Travel & Leisure

May 10, 2019 Last updated: May 20, 2019

Latin Words and Phrases Every Man Should Know

ancient greek senate leaders meeting giving speeches

What do great men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt all have in common?

They all were proficient in Latin.

From the Middle Ages until about the middle of the 20th century, Latin was a central part of a man’s schooling in the West. Along with logic and rhetoric, grammar (as Latin was then known) was included as part of the Trivium – the foundation of a medieval liberal arts education. From Latin, all scholarship flowed and it was truly the gateway to the life of the mind, as the bulk of scientific, religious, legal, and philosophical literature was written in the language until about the 16th century. To immerse oneself in classical and humanistic studies, Latin was a must.

Grammar schools in Europe and especially England during this time were Latin schools, and the first secondary school established in America by the Puritans was a Latin school as well. But beginning in the 14th century, writers started to use the vernacular in their works, which slowly chipped away at Latin’s central importance in education. This trend for English-language learning accelerated in the 19th century; schools shifted from turning out future clergymen to graduating businessmen who would take their place in an industrializing economy. An emphasis on the liberal arts slowly gave way to what was considered a more practical education in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

While Latin had been dying a slow death for hundreds of years, it still had a strong presence in schools until the middle of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1960s, college students demanded that the curriculum be more open, inclusive, and less Euro-centric. Among their suggested changes was eliminating Latin as a required course for all students. To quell student protests, universities began to slowly phase out the Latin requirement, and because colleges stopped requiring Latin, many high schools in America stopped offering Latin classes, too.  Around the same time, the Catholic Church revised its liturgy and permitted priests to lead Mass in vernacular languages instead of Latin, thus eliminating one of the public’s last ties to the ancient language.

While it’s no longer a requirement for a man to know Latin to get ahead in life, it’s still a great subject to study. I had to take classes in Latin as part of my “Letters” major at the University of Oklahoma, and I really enjoyed it. Even if you’re well out of school yourself, there are a myriad of reasons why you should still consider obtaining at least a rudimentary knowledge of the language:

Knowing Latin can improve your English vocabulary. While English is a Germanic language, Latin has strongly influenced it. Most of our prefixes and some of the roots of common English words derive from Latin. By some estimates, 30% of English words derive from the ancient language. By knowing the meaning of these Latin words, if you chance to come across a word you’ve never seen before, you can make an educated guess at what it means. In fact, studies have found that high school students who studied Latin scored a mean of 647 on the SAT verbal exam, compared with the national average of 505.

Knowing Latin can improve your foreign language vocabulary. Much of the commonly spoken Romanic languages like Spanish, French, and Italian derived from Vulgar Latin. You’ll be surprised by the number of Romanic words that are pretty much the same as their Latin counterparts.

Many legal terms are in Latin. Nolo contendere. Mens rea. Caveat emptor. Do you know what those mean? They’re actually common legal terms. While strides have been made to translate legal writing into plain English, you’ll still see old Latin phrases thrown into legal contracts every now and then. To be an educated citizen and consumer, you need to know what these terms mean. If you plan on going to law school, I highly recommend boning up on Latin. You’ll run into it all the time, particularly when reading older case law.

Knowing Latin can give you more insight to history and literature. Latin was the lingua franca of the West for over a thousand years. Consequently, much of our history, science, and great literature was first recorded in Latin. Reading these classics in the original language can give you insights you otherwise may have missed by consuming it in English.

Moreover, modern writers (and by modern I mean beginning in the 17th century) often pepper their work with Latin words and phrases without offering a translation because they (reasonably) expect the reader to be familiar with it. This is true of great books from even just a few decades ago (seems much less common these days – which isn’t a hopeful commentary on the direction of the public’s literacy I would think). Not having a rudimentary knowledge of Latin will cause you to miss out on fully understanding what the writer meant to convey.

Below we’ve put together a list of Latin words and phrases to help pique your interest in learning this classical language. This list isn’t exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve included some of the most common Latin words and phrases that you still see today, which are helpful to know in boosting your all-around cultural literacy. We’ve also included some particularly virile sayings, aphorisms, and mottos that can inspire greatness or remind us of important truths. Perhaps you’ll find a Latin phrase that you can adopt as your personal motto. Semper Virilis!

Latin Words and Phrases Every Man Should Know

  1. a posteriori — from the latter; knowledge or justification is dependent on experience or empirical evidence
  2. a priori — from what comes before; knowledge or justification is independent of experience
  3. acta non verba — deeds, not words
  4. ad hoc — to this — improvised or made up
  5. ad hominem — to the man; below-the-belt personal attack rather than a reasoned argument
  6. ad honorem — for honor
  7. ad infinitum — to infinity
  8. ad nauseam — used to describe an argument that has been taking place to the point of nausea
  9. ad victoriam — to victory; more commonly translated into “for victory,” this was a battle cry of the Romans
  10. alea iacta est — the die has been cast
  11. alias — at another time; an assumed name or pseudonym
  12. alibi — elsewhere
  13. alma mater — nourishing mother; used to denote one’s college/university
  14. amor patriae — love of one’s country
  15. amor vincit omnia — love conquers all
  16. annuit cœptis –He (God) nods at things being begun; or “he approves our undertakings,” motto on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States and on the back of the United States one-dollar bill
  17. ante bellum — before the war; commonly used in the Southern United States as antebellum to refer to the period preceding the American Civil War
  18. ante meridiem — before noon; A.M., used in timekeeping
  19. aqua vitae — water of life; used to refer to various native distilled beverages, such as whisky (uisge beatha) in Scotland and Ireland, gin in Holland, and brandy (eau de vie) in France
  20. arte et marte — by skill and valour
  21. astra inclinant, sed non obligant — the stars incline us, they do not bind us; refers to the strength of free will over astrological determinism
  22. audemus jura nostra defendere — we dare to defend our rights; state motto of Alabama
  23. audere est facere — to dare is to do
  24. audio — I hear
  25. aurea mediocritas — golden mean; refers to the ethical goal of reaching a virtuous middle ground between two sinful extremes
  26. auribus teneo lupum — I hold a wolf by the ears; a common ancient proverb; indicates that one is in a dangerous situation where both holding on and letting go could be deadly; a modern version is, “to have a tiger by the tail”
  27. aut cum scuto aut in scuto — either with shield or on shield; do or die, “no retreat”; said by Spartan mothers to their sons as they departed for battle
  28. aut neca aut necare — either kill or be killed
  29. aut viam inveniam aut faciam — I will either find a way or make one; said by Hannibal, the great ancient military commander
  30. barba non facit philosophum — a beard doesn’t make one a philosopher
  31. bellum omnium contra omnes — war of all against all
  32. bis dat qui cito dat — he gives twice, who gives promptly; a gift given without hesitation is as good as two gifts
  33. bona fide — good faith
  34. bono malum superate — overcome evil with good
  35. carpe diem — seize the day
  36. caveat emptor — let the buyer beware; the purchaser is responsible for checking whether the goods suit his need
  37. circa — around, or approximately
  38. citius altius forties — faster, higher, stronger; modern Olympics motto
  39. cogito ergo sum — “I think therefore I am”; famous quote by Rene Descartes
  40. contemptus mundi/saeculi — scorn for the world/times; despising the secular world, the monk or philosopher’s rejection of a mundane life and worldly values
  41. corpus christi — body of Christ
  42. corruptissima re publica plurimae leges — when the republic is at its most corrupt the laws are most numerous; said by Tacitus
  43. creatio ex nihilo — creation out of nothing; a concept about creation, often used in a theological or philosophical context
  44. cura te ipsum — take care of your own self; an exhortation to physicians, or experts in general, to deal with their own problems before addressing those of others
  45. curriculum vitae — the course of one’s life; in business, a lengthened resume
  46. de facto — from the fact; distinguishing what’s supposed to be from what is reality
  47. deo volente — God willing
  48. deus ex machina — God out of a machine; a term meaning a conflict is resolved in improbable or implausible ways
  49. dictum factum — what is said is done
  50. disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus — learn as if you’re always going to live; live as if tomorrow you’re going to die
  51. discendo discimus — while teaching we learn
  52. docendo disco, scribendo cogito — I learn by teaching, think by writing
  53. ductus exemplo — leadership by example
  54. ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt — the fates lead the willing and drag the unwilling; attributed to Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  55. dulce bellum inexpertis — war is sweet to the inexperienced
  56. dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — it is sweet and fitting to die for your country
  57. dulcius ex asperis — sweeter after difficulties
  58. e pluribus unum — out of many, one; on the U.S. seal, and was once the country’s de facto motto
  59. emeritus — veteran; retired from office
  60. ergo — therefore
  61. et alii — and others; abbreviated et al.
  62. et cetera — and the others
  63. et tu, Brute? — last words of Caesar after being murdered by friend Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, used today to convey utter betrayal
  64. ex animo — from the heart; thus, “sincerely”
  65. ex libris — from the library of; to mark books from a library
  66. ex nihilo — out of nothing
  67. ex post facto — from a thing done afterward; said of a law with retroactive effect
  68. faber est suae quisque fortunae — every man is the artisan of his own fortune; quote by Appius Claudius Caecus
  69. fac fortia et patere — do brave deeds and endure
  70. fac simile — make alike; origin of the word “fax”
  71. flectere si nequeo superos, acheronta movebo — if I cannot move heaven I will raise hell; from Virgil’s Aeneid
  72. fortes fortuna adiuvat — fortune favors the bold
  73. fortis in arduis — strong in difficulties
  74. gloria in excelsis Deo — glory to God in the highest
  75. habeas corpus — you should have the body; a legal term from the 14th century or earlier; commonly used as the general term for a prisoner’s right to challenge the legality of their detention
  76. habemus papam — we have a pope; used after a Catholic Church papal election to announce publicly a successful ballot to elect a new pope
  77. historia vitae magistra — history, the teacher of life; from Cicero; also “history is the mistress of life”
  78. hoc est bellum — this is war
  79. homo unius libri (timeo) — (I fear) a man of one book; attributed to Thomas Aquinas
  80. honor virtutis praemium — esteem is the reward of virtue
  81. hostis humani generis — enemy of the human race; Cicero defined pirates in Roman law as being enemies of humanity in general
  82. humilitas occidit superbiam — humility conquers pride
  83. igne natura renovatur integra — through fire, nature is reborn whole
  84. ignis aurum probat — fire tests gold; a phrase referring to the refining of character through difficult circumstances
  85. in absentia — in the absence
  86. in aqua sanitas — in water there is health
  87. in flagrante delicto — in flaming crime; caught red-handed, or in the act
  88. in memoriam — into the memory; more commonly “in memory of”
  89. in omnia paratus — ready for anything
  90. in situ — in position; something that exists in an original or natural state
  91. in toto — in all or entirely
  92. in umbra, igitur, pugnabimus — then we will fight in the shade; made famous by Spartans in the battle of Thermopylae and by the movie 300
  93. in utero — in the womb
  94. in vitro — in glass; biological process that occurs in the lab
  95. incepto ne desistam — may I not shrink from my purpose
  96. intelligenti pauca — few words suffice for he who understands
  97. invicta — unconquered
  98. invictus maneo — I remain unvanquished
  99. ipso facto — by the fact itself; something is true by its very nature
  100. labor omnia vincit — hard work conquers all
  101. laborare pugnare parati sumus — to work, (or) to fight; we are ready
  102. labore et honore — by labor and honor
  103. leges sine moribus vanae — laws without morals [are] vain
  104. lex parsimoniae — law of succinctness; also known as Occam’s Razor; the simplest explanation is usually the correct one
  105. lex talionis — the law of retaliation
  106. magna cum laude — with great praise
  107. magna est vis consuetudinis — great is the power of habit
  108. magnum opus — great work; said of someone’s masterpiece
  109. mala fide — in bad faith; said of an act done with knowledge of its illegality, or with intention to defraud or mislead someone; opposite of bona fide
  110. malum in se — wrong in itself; a legal term meaning that something is inherently wrong
  111. malum prohibitum — wrong due to being prohibited; a legal term meaning that something is only wrong because it is against the law
  112. mea culpa — my fault
  113. meliora — better things; carrying the connotation of “always better”
  114. memento mori — remember that [you will] die; was whispered by a servant into the ear of a victorious Roman general to check his pride as he paraded through cheering crowds after a victory; a genre of art meant to remind the viewer of the reality of his death
  115. memento vivere — remember to live
  116. memores acti prudentes future — mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be
  117. modus operandi — method of operating; abbreviated M.O.
  118. montani semper liberi — mountaineers [are] always free; state motto of West Virginia
  119. morior invictus — death before defeat
  120. morituri te salutant — those who are about to die salute you; popularized as a standard salute from gladiators to the emperor, but only recorded once in Roman history
  121. morte magis metuenda senectus — old age should rather be feared than death
  122. mulgere hircum — to milk a male goat; to attempt the impossible
  123. multa paucis — say much in few words
  124. nanos gigantum humeris insidentes — dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; commonly known by the letters of Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”
  125. nec aspera terrent — they don’t terrify the rough ones; frightened by no difficulties; less literally “difficulties be damned”
  126. nec temere nec timide — neither reckless nor timid
  127. nil volentibus arduum — nothing [is] arduous for the willing
  128. nolo contendere — I do not wish to contend; that is, “no contest”; a plea that can be entered on behalf of a defendant in a court that states that the accused doesn’t admit guilt, but will accept punishment for a crime
  129. non ducor, duco — I am not led; I lead
  130. non loqui sed facere — not talk but action
  131. non progredi est regredi — to not go forward is to go backward
  132. non scholae, sed vitae discimus — we learn not for school, but for life; from Seneca
  133. non sequitur — it does not follow; in general, a comment which is absurd due to not making sense in its context (rather than due to being inherently nonsensical or internally inconsistent); often used in humor
  134. non sum qualis eram — I am not such as I was; or “I am not the kind of person I once was”
  135. nosce te ipsum — know thyself; from Cicero
  136. novus ordo seclorum — new order of the ages; from Virgil; motto on the Great Seal of the United States
  137. nulla tenaci invia est via — for the tenacious, no road is impassable
  138. obliti privatorum, publica curate — forget private affairs, take care of public ones; Roman political saying which reminds that common good should be given priority over private matters for any person having a responsibility in the State
  139. panem et circenses — bread and circuses; originally described all that was needed for emperors to placate the Roman mob; today used to describe any entertainment used to distract public attention from more important matters
  140. para bellum — prepare for war; if you want peace, prepare for war; if a country is ready for war, its enemies are less likely to attack
  141. parvis imbutus tentabis grandia tutus — when you are steeped in little things, you shall safely attempt great things; sometimes translated as, “once you have accomplished small things, you may attempt great ones safely”
  142. pater familias — father of the family; the eldest male in a family
  143. pecunia, si uti scis, ancilla est; si nescis, domina — if you know how to use money, money is your slave; if you don’t, money is your master
  144. per angusta ad augusta — through difficulties to greatness
  145. per annum — by the year
  146. per capita — by the person
  147. per diem — by the day
  148. per se — through itself
  149. persona non grata — person not pleasing; an unwelcome, unwanted or undesirable person
  150. pollice verso — with a turned thumb; used by Roman crowds to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator
  151. post meridiem — after noon; P.M.; used in timekeeping
  152. post mortem — after death
  153. postscriptum — thing having been written afterward; in writing, abbreviated P.S.
  154. praemonitus praemunitus — forewarned is forearmed
  155. praesis ut prosis ne ut imperes — lead in order to serve, not in order to rule
  156. primus inter pares — first among equals; a title of the Roman Emperors
  157. pro bono — for the good; in business, refers to services rendered at no charge
  158. pro rata — for the rate
  159. quam bene vivas referre (or refert), non quam diu — it is how well you live that matters, not how long; from Seneca
  160. quasi — as if; as though
  161. qui totum vult totum perdit — he who wants everything loses everything; attributed to Seneca
  162. quid agis — what’s going on; what’s up, what’s happening, etc.
  163. quid pro quo — this for that; an exchange of value
  164. quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur — whatever has been said in Latin seems deep; or “anything said in Latin sounds profound”; a recent ironic Latin phrase to poke fun at people who seem to use Latin phrases and quotations only to make themselves sound more important or “educated”
  165. quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — who will guard the guards themselves?; commonly associated with Plato
  166. quorum — of whom; the number of members whose presence is required under the rules to make any given meeting constitutional
  167. requiescat in pace — let him rest in peace; abbreviated R.I.P.
  168. rigor mortis — stiffness of death
  169. scientia ac labore — knowledge through hard work
  170. scientia ipsa potentia est — knowledge itself is power
  171. semper anticus — always forward
  172. semper fidelis — always faithful; U.S. Marines motto
  173. semper fortis — always brave
  174. semper paratus — always prepared
  175. semper virilis — always virile
  176. si vales, valeo — when you are strong, I am strong
  177. si vis pacem, para bellum — if you want peace, prepare for war
  178. sic parvis magna — greatness from small beginnings — motto of Sir Frances Drake
  179. sic semper tyrannis — thus always to tyrants; attributed to Brutus at the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination, and to John Wilkes Booth at the time of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination; whether it was actually said at either of these events is disputed
  180. sic vita est — thus is life; the ancient version of “it is what it is”
  181. sola fide — by faith alone
  182. sola nobilitat virtus — virtue alone ennobles
  183. solvitur ambulandoit is solved by walking
  184. spes bona — good hope
  185. statim (stat) — immediately; medical shorthand
  186. status quo — the situation in which; current condition
  187. subpoena — under penalty
  188. sum quod eris — I am what you will be; a gravestone inscription to remind the reader of the inevitability of death
  189. summa cum laude — with highest praise
  190. summum bonum — the supreme good
  191. suum cuique — to each his own
  192. tabula rasa — scraped tablet; “blank slate”; John Locke used the term to describe the human mind at birth, before it had acquired any knowledge
  193. tempora heroic — Heroic Age
  194. tempus edax rerum — time, devourer of all things
  195. tempus fugit — time flees; commonly mistranslated “time flies”
  196. terra firma — firm ground
  197. terra incognita — unknown land; used on old maps to show unexplored areas
  198. vae victis — woe to the conquered
  199. vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas — vanity of vanities; everything [is] vanity; from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 1)
  200. veni vidi vici — I came, I saw, I conquered; famously said by Julius Caesar
  201. verbatim — repeat exactly
  202. veritas et aequitas — truth and equity
  203. versus — against
  204. veto — I forbid
  205. vice versa — to change or turn around
  206. vincit qui patitur — he conquers who endures
  207. vincit qui se vincit — he conquers who conquers himself
  208. vir prudens non contra ventum mingit — [a] wise man does not urinate [up] against the wind
  209. virile agitur — the manly thing is being done
  210. viriliter agite — act in a manly way
  211. viriliter agite estote fortes — quit ye like men, be strong
  212. virtus tentamine gaudet — strength rejoices in the challenge
  213. virtute et armis — by virtue and arms; or “by manhood and weapons”; state motto of Mississippi
  214. vive memor leti — live remembering death
  215. vivere est vincere — to live is to conquer; Captain John Smith’s personal motto
  216. vivere militare est — to live is to fight
  217. vox populi — voice of the people

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