Word Nerd: Do you speak Latin? Yes, you do!

27 May

Do you speak Latin? Yes, you do!

If I were to say to you, “She recruits students for the university on a pro bono basis,” would you realise that I’d spoken almost as much Latin as English?
Although Latin’s use is itself limited, for instance to the Catholic Church, and certain military organisations, like the US Marine Corps, its influence on English remains marked.

And when we are speaking in formal contexts, whether we know it or not, we frequently take recourse to a more Latinate diction. Just as I did with that sentence. Overdone, Latinate English can appear as unnecessarily ornate as a woman wearing a bridal gown to the supermarket, or a man wearing peacock feathers to the gym. It can also be boring. Sample this infamous opening of the novel, Paul Clifford, which is both, “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You can understand that readers today will have little patience with writers with a style like that. So, the next time you stumble across a big word, which sounds like it belongs in mass, a court ruling, or a state motto – think again about whether you should be using it. A big vocabulary does not a fluent speaker make.

In the meanwhile, there are several Latin words which fit cozily into contemporary constructions. You can find 7 of them listed below.

1) Ad hoc: Latin for to this. The word means made for a particular purpose or situation. The study group was ad hoc. Or, politicians fulfil promises on an ad hoc basis.

2) Alibi: If you’ve watched a single episode of any crime thriller, you will know exactly what this word means. In Latin, alibi means elsewhere. It has been used as a noun since the 18th century – she has an alibi. But it can also be used as a verb – ‘I’ve agreed to alibi her in return for a month-long supply of chocolate.’

3) Bonus: It comes from the Latin for good. In the modern context, it means a sum of money added to the salary for good work (OED). In real life, it can also mean something rare.

4) Carpe diem: You’ve said it. Or heard it. Or seen it tattooed. It means seize the day and is a translation from the Odes of Horace. The same poet who gave us the phrase purple prose.

5) E.g.: For the sake of an example, or in Latin, exempli gratia. It’s everywhere but did you know it came from Latin, something as basic as this?

6) Ego: The Latin for I. In modern English, it’s what your weekly forecasts tell you to keep in check for the sake of your relationships.

7) Extra: Love this word. At first, it just meant extra. Like when your tutor would say it, “You should put in an extra hour on that Trigonometry chapter.” But now it means the most. For e.g., when you answer your mother’s 9th phone call on a night out, and snap, “Mom, you’re so extra!”


More word nerd blogs can be found here. Nerd is not Latin as you might know.

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