10 Words and Phrases That Prove Latin Isn’t Dead

Monday, October 163 min read

Latin was originally spoken 3,000 years ago by small groups of people living along the lower Tiber River in present-day Italy. Then the language exploded across the European continent and the western Mediterranean coastal regions of Africa during the height of the Roman Empire.

Today, Latin has a reputation of being a “dead language,” but that descriptor is not entirely accurate. It provides the building blocks for all of the Romance languages, and many words and expressions in contemporary English are borrowed straight from Latin. Take the informal motto of the United States: E Pluribus Unum is Latin for “Out of many, one.” Here’s a list of common expressions, words, and mottos for major institutions that owe their origin to this so-called dead language.

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Meaning “I came, I saw, I conquered,” this quote is famously attributed to Julius Caesar in a message sent to the Roman Senate to describe his victory against King Pharnaces II of Pontus near Zela in 47 BCE. The classical historian Plutarch praised the brevity and poetry of Caesar’s words, which is likely why the phrase has been preserved for so long. In more modern references, a song in the 1950s Broadway hit Auntie Mame includes the line “You came, you saw, you conquered,” and the rock band the Hives named a 2002 album “Veni Vidi Vicious.”

Status Quo

This Latin expression, meaning “the existing state (of affairs),” is used mainly in the context of social or political issues. It can also refer to an “unaltered condition.” It’s quite far from dead — “status quo” has been in contemporary English usage since 1833.

Crescat Scientia; Vita Excolatur

While this is not a phrase you’ll hear every day, alums of a certain university hold it close to heart. The motto for the University of Chicago means “let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” Many universities and learning institutions have Latin mottos, because the language was once used for formal education around the time many famous universities were founded, and the traditions persisted.

Ad Astra per Aspera

It makes sense that Clark Kent (aka Superman) was raised in Kansas — the state motto, translated from Latin, means “to the stars through difficulties.” About half of the 50 states have Latin mottos.

Carpe Diem

This is perhaps one of the most widely used contemporary Latin phrases. Carpe diem translates to “seize the day,” but the interpretation of it is generally “live each day as if it’s your last.” The Latin phrase first appeared in the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes (23 BCE). Carpe is a form of the infinitive verb carpō, meaning “pick or pluck,” so a more literal translation would be “pluck the day [as it is ripe].”

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

This expression, used as a motto by Dartmouth College, means “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” University founders borrowed it from Isaiah 40:3 in 1769, but students in 2022 still embraced the Latin message.

In Vino Veritas

As attributed to the Roman philosopher and writer Pliny the Elder, this phrase means “in wine, there is truth.” Pliny may have had weightier topics in mind, but the Latin phrase is still applicable as long as people continue to let the truth slip out after one glass of happy-hour wine too many.

Persona Non Grata

Persona non grata literally means “person not welcome.” It was originally used in the context of diplomacy, such as when a foreign diplomat was asked by a host country to be recalled to their home country. Nowadays, it’s used in more personal situations — e.g., a cheating boyfriend may be persona non grata in your friend group.

Leges Sine Moribus Vanae

University of Pennsylvania uses this as its motto, which translates to “laws without morals are useless.” Even Latin can evolve, as the university states the motto has gone through some different interpretations, landing on the modern version in 1932.

Et Tu, Brute?

Unlike Veni, vidi, vici, these words were never actually said by Julius Caesar. Instead, the Shakespearean character of Julius Caesar says them in the eponymous play when he recognizes that his friend Marcus Junius Brutus played a role in his assassination. These days, the expression is used more humorously to condemn a friend’s change of heart.

Featured image credit: Max Zolotukhin/ iStock

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