21 Latin Phrases Every Writer Should Know
- Persona Non Grata
“An unwelcome person” (lately defined, by some, as a literary agent).
- Habeas Corpus
“You have the body” (the legal right to appear before a judge).
- Cogito Ergo Sum
“I think, therefore I am.” For a writer it would be “Scribo ergo sum.”
- Deus Ex Machina
“God from the Machine.” In a novel it basically means the author has written something too convenient to explain events, a plot device to solve the unsolvable problem.
- E Pluribus Unum
“Out of many, one.” Would you dare use this phrase to describe a book: “Many words, one book”?
- Carpe Diem
“Seize the day,” incorrectly used to describe a particular species of fish. Should not, if swapping the “a” and the “r,” be used to describe the nature of your day.
- Quid Pro Quo
“This for that” or, in other words, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
- Non Sequitur
“It does not follow,” a conclusion that is not connected to the statements leading up to it. For example, “Trees are made of wood. My pencil is made of wood. It’s time to finish typing my book.”
- Ad Hominem
“To the man.” During an argument or discussion, one party attacks their opponent’s reputation or expertise, rather than sticking to the issue at hand. A daily practice on social media.
- Alter Ego
Literally, “other self.” Incorrectly misspelled and then used to describe certain preachers.
- Soli Deo Gloria
“Glory to God alone,” a motto of the Reformation. Johann Sebastian Bach would sign his compositions with the initials S.D.G.
- Caveat Emptor
“Let the buyer beware” (before you use the “Buy Now” feature on any online site).
- Pro Bono
“Done without charge,” incorrectly used by fans of U2.
- Memento Mori
“Remember your mortality” (also the name of an album by the band Flyleaf).
- Caveat Lector
“Let the reader beware” (be nice to your reading audience!).
- Sui Generis
“Of its own kind” or “unique,” a key principle in copyright or intellectual property law.
- Alma Mater
Literally, “Nourishing mother.” More often used when referring to the school you attended. But what if you went to Alma School?
- Veni, vidi, vici
“I came, I saw, I conquered,” a message supposedly sent by Julius Caesar to the Roman Senate to describe a battle in 47 BC. For the writer? “Veni, vidi, scripsi” (I came, I saw, I wrote).
- Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
“For the Greater Glory of God.” See 1 Corinthians 10:31. Johann Sebastian Bach also used the initials A.M.D.G.
- Mea Culpa
“By my fault,” or, in common language today, “My bad.”
- Per Diem
“Per day.” A business may give an employee a set amount of money they can spend each day while taking a trip on behalf of the company. Also known as “I can only afford a bowl of hot water and some ketchup when I travel.”
I don’t usually read my emails before I have my quiet time in the morning, but my husband is away and I have to make my own cup of hot tea today. Thanks for the humor to to start the day while I wait on my tea to steep!
These are so fun, especially with the added levity. You taught me some new ones (and new interpretations of some I already knew). I had heard about Bach signing with S.D.G. but didn’t know about A.M.D.G. Very interesting. Thanks for the nice start to Friday.
So interesting, Steve! Thank you for sharing!
Lester L. Stephenson
This is a keeper. I created a Word document so I can reference these.
I needed the refresher course, Steve.
I’d never seen “Sui Generis” before. Thanks.
You hooked me with the picture of the puppy! This was so good and humorous!! A nice read this morning.
Kristen Joy Wilks
These are great! Can’t believe how often “Ad Hominem” shows up … actually, it’s become the norm for a lawyer defending someone accused of rape. Blah!
Lisa Larsen Hill
These were terrific! Thanks for posting!
I took Latin in middle school, and I still love the language. There’s one you left off the list: James Scott Bell’s admonition to be diligent in our work. “Carpe Typem.” (Seize the typewriter.)
Sharon K Connell
So many of these phrases have become part of our everyday writing life, depending on the type of story you’re writing. Thank you for the list. It’s good to keep in mind what each of them mean so we can use them properly.
Don’t forget D.V. (Deo volente)!“God willing,” as in, “Everyone in our writing group plans to publish, D.V.”
Or, as my church history prof said, “it’s the Latin equivalent of, ‘Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.’” 🙂
As a prior student of Latin, I knew most of these phrases, but I enjoyed reading them with your humorous perspective. Thanks!
I forgot one:
The best way to start a special day… (you have to look it up…)
Lol, we do carpe crustum for birthdays, but I always feel sick for the rest of the morning. So I might stick to my boring, usual, morning fare. Thanks for the suggestion anyway! 🙂
William Eugene McBride
Steve….you and your excellent crew always amaze me. It’s great hearing from a Literary Agency staffed by people with both feet on the floor. Bill McBride, “The ROOT of all EVIL”
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Superb information! Thanks! You are more highbrow than I suspected.
Thank ouyay orfay ouryay oughtsthay. Iyay amyay ayay uetray intellectualyay .
In my case, the phrase is, “Mea maxima culpa” (“my most grievous fault”). BTW, “Memento Mori” is also the name of the gift shop next to The Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World.