23 Latin Phrases that Everyone Should Know

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1. Carpe diem 

This well-known phrase comes from a poem by Horace. While there have been arguments about the exact translation, it is most commonly held to mean “seize the day” encouraging individuals to live life to the full today and do not worry about tomorrow.

2. Cogito ergo sum

Translated from the Latin, the quote means “I think, therefore I am” and comes from the writing of philosopher Rene Descartes. 

3. Veni, vidi, vici

These famous words were purported uttered by Roman emperor Julius Caesar after a short war with Pharnaces II of Pontus. Translated, it means “I came, I saw, I conquered”.

4. In vino veritas

A good one for wine lovers, this quote from Pliny the Elder means, “in wine there is the truth.” It is often followed up with “in aqua sanitas” or “in water there is health”– something drinkers should maybe remember.

5. Et tu, Brute?

Used nowadays to signify betrayal, they are the  famous last words of Julius Caesar after he is murdered by his friend Marcus Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They mean “Even you, Brutus?”

6. Ad infinitum

You might be able to guess what this phrase means simply through its similarity to the word we use in English. It means “to infinity” and can be used to describe something that goes on, seemingly or actually endlessly. 

On and on went the coverage, ad nauseam and ad infinitum --- I wanted to throw.

Isabel Wolff RESCUING ROSE (2002)

7. De facto

In Latin, de facto means “from the fact” and in use in English it is often used to distinguish was is supposed to be the case from what is actually the reality. For example, legally, employers are not allowed to discriminate in hiring because of age, but many still practice de facto (in reality, in fact) discrimination.

8. In toto

Simply, in total. Nothing to do with Dorothy's dog

9. Ipso facto

Meaning “by the fact itself” this is commonly used and also a very misused term. It denotes when something is true by its very nature.

For example, if you are always drunk in front of your children, you are ipso facto a bad parent.

10. Tabula rasa

When you were a child, your mind might have been more of a tabula rasa than it is today. This Latin phrase means “clean slate” and denotes something or someone not affected by experiences and impressions.

11. Terra firma

Firm ground. After that awful boat trip, I was glad to be back on terra firma.

12. Mea culpa

Use this If you want to admit your own guilt or wrongdoing in a situation, it translates literally to “my fault.” 

13. Persona non grata

From the Latin meaning an “unacceptable person” this term designates someone who’s no longer welcome in a social or business situation. Donald Trump is a persona non grata.

14. In situ:

If something happens in situ it happens in place or on site, though the term also is often used for something that exists in an original or natural state. 

15. In vitro:

Most people are familiar with this term because of modern fertility treatments, but have you ever considered what the term actually means? In Latin, in vitro means “in glass” and any biological process that occurs in the laboratory rather than in the body or a natural setting can be called in vitro.

16. In vivo 

 In vivo means “within the living” and the two most common examples of this kind of experimentation are animal testing and clinical trials.

17. Ante bellum 

This means in the most basic sense “before the war” and while it can be applied to any war it is most commonly used to refer to the American Civil War and the Antebellum Era the preceded it.

18. Sic

Found in writing, this Latin word most commonly finds a home in brackets (like this: [sic]) when quoting a statement or writing. It indicates that there is a spelling or grammar error (or just something out of the ordinary) in the original quotation and that the publication has only reproduced it faithfully, not made an error of their own. It is also often used to highlight a speaker's errors and nonsensical ramblings

19. Id est

You’ve likely seen this term in writing before, even if you weren’t aware as it is commonly abbreviated to i.e. In Latin, it means “that is” and is used in English when the speaker or writer wants to give an example or explanation that specifies a statement.

20. Deus ex machina

In direct translation, this term means, “God out of a machine” and it harkens back ancient Greek and Roman plays. When the plot would become too tangled or confusing, the writers would simply bring in God, lowered in via a pulley system (the machine) and he would wrap it all up. Today, it’s still used in literature to describe a plot where an artificial or improbable means of resolving a conflict is used.

21. Exempli gratia 

You’ll often see this term abbreviated to e.g. in writing. It means “for the sake of example” and when it see it in a sentence you it will be followed by an example.

22. Et cetera

Most people are familiar with this term but may not know it as well when it’s spelled out like this and not abbreviated as etc.

Meaning “and the others” it is used to denote that a list of things could continue ad infinitum (see above for definition) and that for the sake of brevity it’s better to just wrap things up with a simple etc.

23. Et alii

You’re unlikely to encounter this Latin phrase in its unabbreviated form, and will most likely only ever see it as et al. when included. It is similar to etc. but where etc. refers to things, et al. refers to people.

et al. Abbreviation for et alii (masculine), et aliae (feminine) or et alia (neutral), in all cases meaning and others. Mixed-gender groups would use et alii. 

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