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. 


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. 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.


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, you will need 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!

 1.  Carpe diem: This well-known phrase comes from a poem by Horace: “seize the day” encouraging individuals to live life to the fullest today without expectation of a tomorrow.

 2.  Cogito ergo sum: Translated from the Latin, the quote means “I think, therefore I am” and comes from the writing of philosopher Rene Descartes.

 3.  Veni, vidi, vici: These famous words were reportedly uttered by Roman emperor Julius Caesar, it means “I came, I saw, I conquered”

 4.  In vino veritas: From Pliny the Elder meaning, “in wine there is the truth.” It is often followed up with “in aqua sanitas” or “in water there is health”.

 5.  E pluribus unum: Simply take a look at American currency to see this Latin phrase in use. It means “out of many, one” and is found on anything bearing the seal of the United States.

 6.  Et tu, Brute?: These are the famous last words of Julius Caesar after he was murdered by his friend Marcus Brutus. They mean “Even you, Brutus?” and are used poetically today to designate any form of the utmost betrayal.

 7.  Ad infinitum: It means “to infinity” and can be used to describe something that goes on, seemingly or actually endlessly.

 8.  De facto: In Latin, de facto means “from the fact” and in use in English it is often used to distinguish was is supposed to be the case from what is actually the reality.

 9.  In toto: Means in all or entirely “in total”.

 10.  Ipso facto: Meaning “by the fact itself” this commonly used and misused term is denotes when something is true by its very nature.

 11.  Tabula rasa:  This Latin phrase means “clean slate” and denotes something or someone not affected by experiences and impressions.

 12.  Terra firma: Means firm ground, as opposed to rough waters.

 13.  Mea culpa: To admit your own guilt or wrongdoing, this Latin phrase that translates literally to “my fault.”

 14.  Persona non grata: From the Latin meaning an “unacceptable person” this term designates someone who is no longer welcome in a social or business situation.

 15.  In situ: If something happens in situ it happens in place or on site.

 16.  In vitro: In Latin, in vitro means “in glass”. Any biological process that occurs in the laboratory rather than in the body or a natural setting can be called in vitro.

 17.  In vivo: Means “within the living” and the two most common examples of this kind of experimentation are animal testing and clinical trials.

 18.  Ante bellum: Means “before the war”.

 19.  Sic: Found in writing, this Latin word most commonly finds a home in brackets (like this: [sic]) when quoting a statement or writing. It indicates that there is a spelling or grammar error (or just something out of the ordinary) in the original quotation and that the publication has only reproduced it faithfully, not made an error of their own.

 20.  Id est: Means “that is” and is used in English when the speaker or writer wants to give an example or explanation that specifies a statement.

 21.  Deus ex machina: In direct translation, this term means, “God out of a machine” and it harkens back ancient Greek and Roman plays. When the plot would become too tangled or confusing, the writers would simply bring in a god, lowered in via a pulley system (the machine) and he would wrap it all up. Today, it’s still used in literature to describe a plot where an artificial or improbable means of resolving a conflict is used.

 22.  Exempli gratia: Often this term is abbreviated to e.g. It means “for the sake of example” and when it see it in a sentence you can expect that is will be followed by examples.

 23. Et cetera: Meaning “and the others” it is used to denote that a list of things could continue and that for the sake of brevity it’s better to just wrap things up with a simple etc.

 24.  Ex libris: Means “from the library of.”

 25.  Ibidem: Commonly seen in research writing in the form of “ibid.” From the Latin for “in the same place” it is found in footnotes and bibliographies to designate that the same source has been cited twice in succession.

 26.  Sola Christus: Christ alone is the Head of the Church.

Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is our ultimate authority.

Sola Gratia: Salvation is by the grace of God alone.

Sola Fide: Justification is received by faith alone.

Soli Deo Gloria: Everything is to be done for the glory of God alone.

The Protestant Reformation mobilised by Luther rallied around these great battle cries.

Dr. Peter Hammond

Reformation Society

P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725

Cape Town South Africa

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