Common Latin Words and Phrases We Use in English

Did you know how much of the English language comes from Latin? About 80% of the English we speak can be traced back to Latin. Many English words share Latin roots with the Romance languages such as Spanish, French, and Italian, so it's often easy to decode a new word by considering the bits of Latin you know. For example, the Latin root aud means "to hear," which forms the basis for the English words "auditorium" and "audience," both of which have to do with listening.

Carpe diem: Latin for seize the day Carpe diem: Latin for seize the day

Some Latin comes to English in more than the roots of words. There are many phrases used wholesale from the original Latin. It pays to know these common Latin words and phrases we use in English as they come up in a variety of situations.

Advertisement

Common Latin Sayings and Their Meanings

You'll often see Latin still used in inscriptions or used as an organization's motto, but you may also be surprised how often it crops up in day-to-day use.

  • Ad nauseam: To the point of sickness
    This is used to say that someone or something is repeated too much — to the point that you're getting sick of it. For example, “the radio station played the number one song ad nauseam.”
  • Bona fide: In good faith
    This adjective originally described someone bargaining or working in good faith, meaning they could be trusted. Today it's used to describe anything real or authentic, as in “this painting is a bona fide Picasso.”
  • Carpe diem: Seize the day
    This philosophy was originally coined by the Roman poet Horace to encourage people to live life to the fullest. The original YOLO (you only live once), it was later made popular in England by 17th century poet Robert Herrick.
  • Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware
    This warning is so important that it's common to hear it in both English and Latin. It encourages people to think before they buy something, because they will inherit any problems or expenses with their purchase.
  • Cum laude: With honor
    This is often added to diplomas to indicate that a graduate has earned honors by getting good grades along the way. "Summa cum laude" is even better, with the highest honors.
  • De facto: In fact
    This term is used to describe someone who does a job despite not being officially in that position. A de facto manager might be a regular worker who has stepped up to keep the business running after a boss quit and wasn't replaced.
  • E pluribus unum: Out of many, one
    This is the motto of the United States and is seen printed on its currency. It refers to the fact that many states were brought together under one government with the country's constitution.
  • Et cetera: And the rest of such things
    Commonly abbreviated to "etc." and used at the end of a list to show that there are more items, but they are too similar or numerous to name them all.
  • Ipso facto: By the fact itself
    This often misused term denotes when something is true by its very nature, or a direct result of an action. For example, if you didn’t stop your friend from stealing you are ipso facto an accomplice.
  • Mea culpa: Through my own fault
    This is Latin for "my bad," a short phrase to accept blame and apologize for something going wrong.
  • Per diem: For each day
    This phrase is used in legal and accounting business to refer to payment rendered on a daily basis rather than as an annual salary or hourly rate. For example, if a nurse works on a per diem basis, she is paid by the day and does not have a long-term contract.
  • Pro bono: For the good
    This phrase is actually a shortened version of "pro bono publico," which means "for the greater good." It's a legal term that refers to doing work without pay as a donation of services. When a lawyer works "pro bono," it's for free because he or she believes in the cause.
  • Pro forma: As a matter of form
    This phrase refers to doing things in the proper way, typically by following all the steps — even when these steps may not be necessary. It's a fancy way of saying you'll go through the motions.
  • Rigor mortis: The stiffness of death
    This is a medical term that describes what happens to a body several hours after death — it stiffens to the point of being unable to move. Muscles harden due to a build-up of substances in the body as decay sets in.
  • Vice versa: The position being reversed
    Vice versa is used after a sentence or phrase to show that it also makes sense if you swap the two parts for each other. For example, "She loves her husband and vice versa" is a faster way of switching the sentence to say that her husband loves her, too.

Latin Phrases Are All Around

This is just a sampling of the very numerous Latin words and phrases still used in the English language. Many are legal terms, but you'll find others in everyday use, too. Keep your eyes open, and you're sure to notice that Latin is all around you, even though it’s not spoken on a daily basis any more. If you’re interested in learning more Latin words, take a look at this vocabulary list.

Advertisement