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January, 2008

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Latin Lingo
Latin locked out of school
By  N E Renton

Latin phrases sometimes convey meaning better than the nearest English equivalent.
uidquid latine dictum sit altum viditur, or, whatever is said in Latin seems profound.

It is alleged that the former Vice-President of the United States, Dan Quayle, once said: "I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people."

Despite Latin no longer being taught in most schools, interest in the meanings of Latin words used in ordinary conversation or in the mottos of organisations is great.

As the following passage shows, Latin terms are these days used subconsciously more often than is generally realised:

Marcus remembered how in 2000 anno domini his uncle had lain in extremis for weeks before dying, rather spoiling a year which had otherwise been an annus mirabilis. Requiescat in pace. A post mortem ordered ad hoc had shown that the prima facie cause of his rigor mortis had been food poisoning. He had apparently forgotten about caveat emptor when shopping and thus had made a bona fide mistake in his choice of store. Res ipsa loquitur.

The uncle had been an emeritus professor and had received a doctorate honoris causa for the research modus operandi used for his magnum optus.

Unfortunately he became non compos mentis in his nineties. He and Marcus had been ad idem on gourmet food inter alia. Marcus once gave him some choice cheeses and had received a book with his uncle's ex libris as a quid pro quo.

Marcus was de facto acting in loco parentis of a teenage girl who was still virgo intacta despite going out with a boy who was infra dig. Marcus had no desire to catch them in flagrante delicto, so he lectured them in extenso and repeated his admonitions ad nauseam. He took them aside and sub rosa read to them various words of wisdom - exempli gratia, extracts taken verbatim from a book listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. However, they took all his advice cum grano salis.

Deo gratia nothing terrible had happened so far and deo volente it never would - gaudeamus igitur.

Many persons express interest in the meanings of Latin phrases and regret never having studied Latin. To aid these persons a list of more than 250 common Latin phrases is available online at

Some Latin phrases convey a shade of meaning much better than the nearest English equivalent - for example, an ad hoc committee, a non sequitur.

However, such expressions should be used sparingly, and never inserted merely in the belief that this somehow adds authority to the writing.

In some cases the use of a foreign term, while traditional, adds nothing to the meaning and its continued use is thus merely a matter of taste - for example, "$100 per annum" and "$100 a year" can be regarded as interchangeable. In other cases the foreign term is still the more idiomatic - for example, "a per diem fee".

An expression frequently encountered is "illegitimis non carborundum" (don't let the bastards grind you down). This was the motto of United States General Joseph W "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell (1883-1946), but it is not real Latin. It is a pseudo-Latin joke.

One practical point needs mention: The temptation to use hyphens in short Latin phrases such as "bona fide", "de facto", "ex parte" and "pro rata" should be resisted. However, the use of italics is optional.

In conclusion, a little bit of history: In 1843 Sir Charles Napier conquered Sind, which is now a province in Pakistan. He had had some misgivings about the justice of this action. He expressed these in the clever punning announcement of his success: "Peccavi" (I have sinned).

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N E (Nick) Renton is an Australian consulting actuary, commercial arbitrator and company director. He is the author of 57 books, published by 11 different publishers in Australia and the United States. He has written over 500 articles in newspapers and financial journals in the last ten years. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2004. His web site can be found at: See his 36 grammar tips:

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IN This Issue
The Write Group
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Part II: Have Ideas, Will Travel
Part I: Have Ideas, Will Travel
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Part I: Early Elementary Picture Books
Part II: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
Part I: Are These Mistakes Costing You Money?
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Writer’s Block
The path to inspiration starts
Upon the trails we’ve known;
Each writer’s block is not a rock,
But just a stepping stone.

Poetry Is Not
Penned to the page
Waiting for us to admire.
It is only a lonely thought
Caught by tears on fire.

Silent Echoes
A quiet rhyme upon a page
Is what a poet gives;
Some gentle words whispered in trust
To see if memory lives.

Bard From Deadlines
What makes a poem finally work
Is not the time it takes;
It’s how the poet used the muse
To prophet from mistakes.

Be Mused
The art and craft of poetry
Are not so far apart;
The craft comes from the cunning,
The rest comes from the heart.

Fine Vintage
Don’t plant your poem on the page
As though you’re hanging drapes;
It’s shape and flow should come and grow
Like wild summer grapes.

Getting It Write
Writers write what they know best,
Their passions, fears, and dreams;
Writers rarely write about
What other call their “themes.”

Double Vision
A writer’s life is paradox,
It’s more than what it seems;
We write of our reality,
The one inside our dreams.

The echo of a promise,
The thunder of a sigh,
The music of a memory,
A child asking why.

Letter Perfect
Twenty six symbols arranged on a page
Can send a soul to heaven or torment it with rage,
Can free a fragile world or hold it in its net--
The power and the magic of the mighty alphabet.

The Write of Passage
The jump from writing just for fun
To getting paid for it
Begins when you first realize
You know you’ll never quit.

It is not the magic of his wings
That sets us free from our bond.
It is the muse within ourselves
That lets our words lift us beyond.

Photo Poet
Consider your mind the darkroom,
Consider your life the lens,
Consider your eye the camera
On whose focus the poem depends.

Rising Moon
A poem is a rising moon
Shining on the sea,
An afterglow of all we know,
Of all we hope to be.

Star Light
Writing a poem,
Reaching a star,
In making good art
We find who we are.

Spider Web
A poem is a spider web
Spun with words of wonder,
Woven lace held in place
By whispers made of thunder.

The final draft upon the screen,
At last my poem’s through;
A verse of only four short lines--
I rewrote twenty-two!

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