Latin in English, Part I
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
How often have you heard the term "M-O" on your favorite police show? Have any idea what it means? It's a Latin phrase which has been standardized in law enforcement language
which is short for "modus operandi",
in English 'way of operating.' There are countless Latin phrases like this which are used in everyday English, often by people who know nothing of Latin, and may not even know
that they are using Latin words or phrases.
Think about it; nearly everyone has an "alma mater". Do you know what it means? It's your 'nurturing mother'. Who has ever heard the lawyers on a TV show talk about a writ of
"habeas corpus" (you may have the body)? This writ is used to demand evidence that a crime has been committed. Continuing in the legal vein, how about "prima facie" (at first
view) evidence, the opposite of which is "circumstantial"? Do you know anyone who is "persona non grata" (an unworthy, unwelcome person)?
In the non-legal domain, have you or someone you know ever uttered a "non sequitur" (it doesn't follow)? Everyone hopes someday to produce a "magnum opus" (great work). Have you
ever noticed the logo under the growling Metro Goldwyn Mayer lion at the theater: "ars gratia artis", it roars, 'art for art's sake.' Did Julius Caesar actually say "veni, vidi,
vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered)? Maybe, but he never wrote it. It's attributed to him by the Roman historian Suetonius (died 160 CE).
Have you ever been cautioned with the phrase "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware)? How many times have you been urged to get on with things because "tempus fugit" (time flies)?
And finally, how many who saw Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society" thought that the phrase "carpe diem" was a Williams original, when in fact it's from the eleventh ode of the
Roman poet Horace (died 8 BCE), meaning 'seize the day?'
Back to Baldi Index >
Back to the Card Catalog >
More Baldi: Latin in English II >