10 Latin phrases people claim to understand

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By Kevin Fleming

Whether you’re deciphering a cryptic state seal or trying to impress your Catholic in-laws, knowing Latin has its benefits. But the key word here is “some”. We’re going to start with 10 phrases that have outlived the henchmen of time (in all their pretentious glory).

1. Caveat Emptor // “Let the buyer beware”

Before money back guarantees and 20 year guarantees, Warning was essential advice for the consumer. Nowadays, it would be more appropriate to have it tattooed on the foreheads of used car salesmen and infomercial actors. To gain additional credit points, remember that the warning often makes solo appearances during cocktails as a fancy term for a warning or caution. Oh, and just to let you know warning reader means “Let the reader beware.”

2. Persona Non Grata // “An unacceptable person”

Do you remember your old college buddy, the one everyone called Chugger? Now imagine it at a debutants’ ball, and you will start to get a feel for someone with persona non grata status. The term is most often used in diplomatic circles to indicate that a person is not welcome due to ideological differences or a breach of trust. Sometimes the tag refers to an outcast, rascal, killjoy, or intruder, but it’s always subjective. In 2004, Michael Moore was treated as persona non grata at the Republican National Convention. Bill O’Reilly would go through the same thing at Burning Man.

3. Habeas Corpus // “You will have the body”

In a word, habeas corpus is the legal principle that guarantees a detainee the right to appear before a judge in court, in order to be able to determine whether or not that person is legally imprisoned. It is also one of the cornerstones of the American and British legal systems. Without it, tyrannical and unjust imprisonments would be possible. In situations where national security is threatened, however, habeas corpus can be suspended.

4. Cogito Ergo Sum // “I think, therefore I am”

When all those fiery mental wrestling fights you have over existentialism start to get old (yes, that’s right!), You can always end the debate with cogito ergo sum. René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher, coined the phrase as a way to justify reality. According to him, nothing in life could be proven except his thoughts. Well, he thought anyway.

5. E Pluribus Unum // “Among many, one”

America’s original national motto, e pluribus unum, was plagiarized from an old dressing recipe. In the 18th century, haughty intellectuals were fond of this phrase. It was the sort of thing men’s magazines used to describe their year-end editions. But the term made its first appearance in Virgil’s poem “Moretum” to describe the dressing. The ingredients, he writes, abandon their individual aesthetic when mixed with others to form a unique, seamless, harmonious and flavorful concoction. And while e pluribus unum continuing to appear on American coins, “In God We Trust” later came (officially in 1956) to share the motto in the spotlight.

6. Quid Pro Quo // “That for that”

Given that misunderstanding refers to a deal or exchange, it’s no wonder the British have dubbed their almighty book the “quid”. And if you give someone a little money, you’re going to expect a certain quo. The phrase often lives in the courtroom, where guilt and innocence are the motto. It is the oil that lubricates our legal system. Something of quantified value is exchanged for something of equal value; the elements are separated and parceled out until misunderstanding is accomplished.

7. Ad Hominem // “To [attack] the man”

In the world of public discourse, ad hominem is a way to attack one’s rhetorical opponent by questioning his reputation or expertise rather than sticking to the issue at hand. Translation: Politicians are really good at it. People who have recourse ad hominem techniques are generally ridiculed as having a watered-down argument or a lack of discipline. If they are in a hurry, they will brandish it like a sword and refuse to get into the heart of the matter. Who says the debate team doesn’t have sex appeal?

8. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam // “All for the greater glory of God”

Ad majorem dei gloriam is often abbreviated as AMDG. In other words, it is the WWJD of the Jesuits, who have pierced the mantra in their followers since (Saint) Ignatius of Loyola founded the Catholic Order in 1534. They believe that all actions, large or small, should be done with AMDG in bother. Remind your Jesuit friends when they seem to get out of the way. (Best used with a wink and a hint of irony.)

9. Memento Mori // “Remember, you are going to die”

Carpe Diem is so 20th century. If you want to suck the marrow of life, try to do it with honesty, irrefutable and no less inspiring memory mori. You can interpret the sentence in two ways: eat, drink, and party. Or, in a less hedonistic way, be good to be able to walk through the pearly doors. Naturally, the latter was the one preferred by the early Christian Church, which used macabre art – including dancing skeletons and extinguished candles – to remind worshipers to forgo temporal pleasures in favor of eternal bliss in heaven.

10. Sui Generis // “Unique and impossible to classify”

Frank Zappa, the VW Beetle, canned cheese: sui generis refers to something so new, so bizarre, or so rare that it defies categorization. Certainly label something sui generis actually only classifies the unclassifiable. But let’s not think about it too much. Use it at a dinner party to describe Andy Kaufman, and you will wow your friends. Use it too often and you look pretentious.

A version of this story appeared in a 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. It has been updated for 2021.


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