Millions were shocked and saddened when Robin Williams died in 2014, mourning both the gentle man and his comedic genius. We have his legacy of course, including not only recordings of his stand-up routines, “Mork and Mindy” re-runs, and his many riotous interviews on late night talk shows, but also over a dozen immensely popular films.
My favorite is the 1989 drama “Dead Poets Society,” which won Williams an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Who can forget his character, the unorthodox but beloved boarding school English teacher John Keating, warning his boys of the brevity of life and demanding of them, “Carpe diem…. make your lives extraordinary!”
The Latin exhortation goes back over 2,000 years to the Roman poet Horace, who meant by it, not exactly “seize the day,” but a more salutary “harvest the day.” The verb carpe - source of exCERPt, something “plucked” from a text - is drawn from the language of agriculture. Horace meant us to see every day as a ripe fruit ready to be plucked from its tree, eaten and savored and making us healthy and whole. The adage is among thousands of common Latin sentences, phrases, and even abbreviations that have become a part of our cultural fabric and turn up everywhere in our daily lives, in what we read, what we hear on the news, and what we see on television and in the movies.
Many are ubiquitous (from Latin ubique/“everywhere”). Quid pro quo, “something in return for something,” is a political “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” A non sequitur (as in SEQUel and SEQUence) is a response that logically “doesn’t follow” the point of a preceding remark. Someone you cannot abide is persona non grata, i.e. (id est/“that is”) an unGRACious PERSON whose company you don’t find GRATifying. If you’re away on business your company may provide you a per diem (the same diem you’ve hopefully been “carping”!) for expenses “by the day.” When relocating to a new area of the country with your kids, you may check the state’s expenditures on education per capita (“by heads,” i.e., per person).
Numerous medical terms and abbreviations come from Latin. For your annual physical exam, you’ll be instructed to be n.p.o. after midnight, i.e., nil per os, “nothing by mouth” (like NIL and anNIHILate, and os/oris, which gives us ORal). When it came to taking my temperature as a youngster I much preferred per os to per rectum (you can figure those out)! My doctor’s recent scrip specified the pill be taken b.i.d., “twice in a day,” bis in die (as in BIennial/twice a year and BIcycle/two wheels). You might take your meds before or after food, ante cibum/a.c. or post cibum/p.c., or at bedtime, hora somni /the “hour of sleep” (when you’re SOMNolent/sleepy). If the pills don’t work, your doc might need to do an exam “after death”/post mortem (as in MORTal and MORTuary).
If you’ve been in court much, or love John Grisham novels or television’s law and order shows, you’ve encountered lots of legal Latin. In a judicial proceeding the district attorney may declare nol pros., short for nolo prosequi, “I don’t wish to prosecute,” especially if he thinks you’re non compos mentis, “not in control of your mind!”
But if you’re indicted, and know you’re at fault but don’t want to confess, you can always declare nolo contendere, “I don’t want to contest (the charge).” That plea, ipso facto (“by the fact itself”), is taken by many to imply your guilt. Cui bono - “to whose advantage?” - reflects the legal notion that whoever most benefitted from a crime is a likely suspect. And remember, ignorantia juris (as in JURISprudence) non excusat, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”!
There’re Latin phrases in such common use that we practically consider them English. E.g. (exempli gratia/“for example”), your alma mater/“fostering mother” is the school you graduated from. A bona fide agreement is made “in good faith.” A service performed pro bono, “for the (public) good,” is done for free, gratis. An item you regard as sine qua non, “without which not,” is indispensable. Then there are status quo, the “state in which” we currently find ourselves, tempus fugit, “time flies” (like a FUGITive), etc. = et cetera, “and all the rest.”
So is it useful to know a bit of Latin? As my attorney daughter Caroline would assert, res ipsa loquitur (as in eLOQUent)—“the matter speaks for itself.” And the Dead Poets Society’s John Keating might have added, if you want to “make your lives extraordinary,” then “lean in” and learn some Latin!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities. His latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Area.