150 Foreign Expressions to Inspire You

By Mark Nichol

Here’s a writing challenge for you: I’ve listed foreign expressions, mostly in Latin, that offer wisdom or otherwise encapsulate a thought-provoking idea. Select one (or more) that resonates with you and employ it as a writing prompt.

Note the evocative strength of “Alis volat propiis,” or the motivating force of “Audentes fortuna juvat.” Can you taste the bitter regret of “Dis aliter visum”? What kind of cynical crime noir can you concoct around “Cherchez la femme”?

You’re welcome to suggest others. (Note, however that these are all complete sentences. I have phrases set aside for another day.)

1. Abeunt studia in mores: Practices zealously pursued pass into habits.
2. Absit invidia: Let there be no envy or ill will.
3. Abusus non tollit usum: Abuse does not take away use. (Abuse is not an argument against proper use.)
4. Age quod agis: Do what you are doing. (To the business at hand.)
5. Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera: Help yourself, and heaven will help you.
6. Alea jacta est: The die is cast.
7. Alis volat propriis: She flies with her own wings.
8. Amor vincit omnia: Love conquers all things.
9. Ars est celare artem: It is (true) art to conceal art.
10. Ars longa, vita brevis: Art is long, life is short.
11. Au pays des aveugles les borgnes sont rois: In the country of the blind, the one-eyed men are kings.
12. Audentes fortuna juvat/Fortes fortuna bravat: Fortune favors the bold/Fortune favors the brave.
13. Bis dat qui cito dat: He gives twice who gives promptly.
14. C’est autre chose: That’s a different thing.
15. C’est la guerre: That’s war. (It cannot be helped.)
16. C’est la vie: That’s life. (That’s how things happen.)
17. C’est plus qu’un crime, c’est une faute: It is worse than a crime, it is a blunder.
18. Ca va sans dire: It goes without saying.
19. Caveat lector: Let the reader beware.
20. Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coute: It is only the first step that costs.
21. Cedant arma togae: Let arms yield to the toga. (Let military power give way to civil power.)
22. Cetera desunt: The rest is missing.
23. Chacun a son gout: Everyone to his taste.
24. Che sara, sara: What will be will be.
25. Cherchez la femme: Look for the woman.
26. Corruptio optimi pessima: The corruption of the best is the worst of all.
27. Credo quia absurdum est: I believe it because it is absurd.
28. Credo ut intelligam: I believe so that I may understand.
29. Damnant quod non intelligunt: They condemn what they do not understand.
30. De gustibus non est disputandum: There is no disputing about tastes.
31. De minimis non curat lex: The law takes no account of trifles.
32. De mortuis nil nisi bonum: Of the dead (say) nothing but good.
33. Dis aliter visum: The gods decreed otherwise.
34. Docendo discimus: We learn by teaching.
35. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.
36. Dum spiro, spero: While I breathe, I hope.
37. Dum vivimus vivamus: While we live, let us live.
38. Dux femina facti: A woman was leader of the exploit.
39. Ecce signum: Behold the sign. (Look at the proof.)
40. Ecrasez l’infame: Crush the infamous thing.
41. Eheu fugaces labuntur anni: Alas! The fleeting years glide on.
42. Est modus in rebus: There is a proper measure in things.
43. Ex nihilo nihil fit: From nothing, nothing is produced.
44. Ex pede Herculem/Ex ungue leonem: From the foot (we may judge the size of) Hercules, from the claw (we may judge) the lion.
45. Exceptio probat regulam de rebus non exceptis: An exception establishes the rule as to things not excepted.
46. Exitus acta probat: The outcome justifies the deed.
47. Facilis descensus Averno: The descent to Avernus is esay. (The road to evil is easy.)
48. Fas est et ab hoste doceri: It is right even to learn from an enemy.
49. Fata viam invenient: The Fates will find a way.
50. Festina lente: Make haste slowly.
51. Fiat experimentum in corpore vili: Let experiment be made on a worthless body.
52. Fiat justitia, ruat caelum: Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.
53. Fiat lux: Let there be light.
54. Finem respice: Consider the end.
55. Finis coronat opus: The end crowns the work.
56. Fluctuat nec mergitur: It is tossed by the waves but does not sink.
57. Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit: Perhaps this too will be a pleasure to look back on one day.
58. Fronti nulla fides: No reliance can be placed on appearance.
59. Gardez la foi: Keep faith.
60. Gaudeamus igitur: Let’s make merry.
61. Gnothi seauton: Know thyself.
62. Hoc age: Do this. (Apply yourself to what you are about.)
63. Hoc opus, hic labor est: This is the hard work, this is the toil.
64. Honi soit qui mal y pense: Shamed be he who thinks evil of it.
65. Humanum est errare: To err is human.
66. Ignorantia juris neminem excusat: Ignorance off the law excuses no one.
67. Il faut cultiver notre jardin: We must cultivate our garden. (We must tend to our own affairs.)
68. Ils ne passeront pas: They shall not pass.
69. In hoc signo vinces: By this sign you shall conquer.
70. Invenit/Pinxit: He (or she) devised/painted it.
71. Ira furor brevis est: Anger is a brief madness.
72. J’y suis, j’y reste: Here I am, here I remain.
73. Jacta alea est: The die is cast.
74. La reine/le roi le vuit: The queen (or the king) wills it.
75. La reine/le roi s’avisera: The queen (or king) will consider.
76. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate: Abandon hope, all ye who enter.
77. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point: The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.
78. Magna est veritas et praevalebit: Truth is mighty and will prevail.
79. Medio tutissimus ibis: You will go most safely by the middle course.
80. Morituri te salutamus: We who about to die salute you.
81. Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur: With the name changed, the story applies to you.
82. Natura non facit saltum: Nature makes no leap.
83. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret: You may drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.
84. Ne cede malis: Yield not to misfortune.
85. Nemo me impune lacessit: No one attacks me with impunity.
86. Nil desperandum: Never despair.
87. Non omnia possumus omnes: We can’t all do all things.
88. Non omnis moriar: I shall not wholly die.
89. Non sum qualis eram: I am not what I used to be.
90. Nosce te ipsum: Know thyself.
91. Nous avons change tout cela: We have changed all that.
92. Nous verrons ce que nous verrons: We shall see what we shall see.
93. Oderint dum metuant: Let them hate, so long as they fear.
94. Odi et amo: I hate and I love.
95. Omne ignotum pro magnifico: The unknown tends to be exaggerated in importance or difficulty.
96. Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis: All things are changing, and we are changing with them.
97. Omnia vincit amor: Love conquers all.
98. Ora pro nobis: Pray for us.
99. Ou sont les neiges d’antan?: Where are the snows of yesteryear?
100. Panta rhei: All things are in flux.
101. Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus: The mountains are in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be brought forth.
102. Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt: May they perish who have expressed our bright ideas before us.
103. Pereunt et imputantur: The hours pass away and are reckoned on our account.
104. Place aux dames: Make room for the ladies.
105. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (sometimes abbreviated to just “Plus ca change . . .): The more things change, the more they stay the same.
106. Poeta nascitur, on fit: A poet is born, not made.
107. Primum non nocere: The first thing is to do no harm.
108. Qui facit per alium facit per se: He who does through another does through himself.
109. Qui s’excuse s’accuse: He who excuses himself accuses himself.
110. Qui va la?: Who goes there?
111. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: Who will keep the keepers?
112. Quo vadis?: Where are you going?
113. Quos deus vult perdere prius dementat: Those whom a god wishes to destroy he first drives mad.
114. Quot homines, tot sententiae: There are as many opinions as there are men.
115. Rem acu tetigisti: You have touched the point with a needle.
116. Requiescat in pace: Rest in peace.
117. Respice finem: Consider the outcome.
118. Resurgam: I shall rise again.
119. Revenons a nos moutons: Let us return to our sheep. (Let us return to our subject.)
120. Salus populi suprema lex esto: Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law.
121. Se non e vero, e ben trovato: Even if it is not true, it is well conceived.
122. Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait!: If youth only knew, if age only could!
123. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: If you seek his monument, look around.
124. Si vis pacem, para bellum: If you wish peace, prepare for war.
125. Sic itur ad astra: Thus one goes to the stars (Such is the way to immortality.)
126. Sic semper tyrannis: Thus ever to tyrants.
127. Sic transit gloria mundi: So passes away the glory of the world.
128. Silent leges inter arma: The laws are silent in the midst of arms.
129. Similia similibus curantur: Like is cured by like.
130. Similis simili gaudet: Like takes pleasure in like.
131. Siste viator: Stop, traveler.
132. Solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking. (The problem is solved by a practical experiment.)
133. Sunt lacrimae rerum: There are tears for things.
134. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis: The times are changing, and we are changing with them.
135. Tempus fugit: Time flies.
136. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes: I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.
137. Tout comprende c’est tout pardonner: To understand all is to forgive all.
138. Tout est perdu fors l’honneur: All is lost save honor.
139. Truditur dies die: The day is pushed forth by day. (One day hurries on another.)
140. Tuebor: I will defend.
141. Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono: The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.
142. Vada retro me, Satana: Get behind me, Satan.
143. Vae victis: Woe to the vanquished.
144. Varium et mutabile semper femina: Woman is ever a fickle and changeable thing.
145. Verbum sat sapienti est: A word to the wise is sufficient.
146. Vincit omnia veritas: Truth conquers all things.
147. Vive la difference: Long live the difference (between the sexes).
148. Vogue la galere: Let the galley be kept rowing. (Keep on, whatever may happen.)
149. Voila tout: That’s all.
150. Vox populi vox Dei: The voice of the people is the voice of God.

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16 Responses to “150 Foreign Expressions to Inspire You”

  • Jon

    Very nice list there.

    Then there’s Cicero’s ever relevant Cui bono? – “as a benefit to whom?”

  • Cecily

    Excellent timing (a day after yesterday’s post, including Orwell’s dictat #5). 😉

  • cmdweb @ freewritingadvice.com

    My favourites:

    In vino veritas. (In wine, the truth) and
    Veni, vidi, vici. (I came, I saw, I conquered).

  • Peter

    Balnea, vino, venus, corrumpunt corpora nostra//sed vitam faciunt balnea, vino, Venus — which I render as: Bathing, boozing, bonking, these corrupt our bodies//but bathing, boozing, and bonking make life worthwhile.

  • thebluebird11

    OK, very funny…now how you do pronounce all of these?!

    and @peter: I can see boozing corrupting, but the others…?!

  • shirley in berkeley

    A foreign phrase can be a good friend
    If to dazzle is what you intend,
    But as everyone knows
    The key to great prose
    Is never the means but the end.

  • shirley in berkeley

    What I meant to say was:

    A foreign phrase can be a good friend
    If to dazzle is what you intend,
    But as everyone knows
    The key to great prose
    Isn’t REALLY the means but the end.

  • Stephen Thorn

    (pardon me if my spelling isn’t perfect here) Illegitimae non tatum carborundum: Don’t let the bastards wear you down.

  • Tony Rowlett

    Then there’s, “Veni vidi visa” (I came, I saw, I shopped!)

  • vp ahmed

    very useful article.

  • Jean-Luc

    A few typos in french quotes (assuming that systematic diacritics omision in other quotes is deliberate):

    Tout comprendRe, c’est tout pardonner
    La reine/le roi le vEUt

  • afif

    Hi all,
    The phrase numbered 61 have the same meaning with the phrase numbered 90. Is that correct?

  • Mark Nichol


    Thanks for the corrections. I compiled this list from print sources and had to transcribe, rather than copying and pasting, and tried (in vain) to catch all my transcription typos.

    I also should have mentioned that I omitted many diacritical marks; many online sources don’t retain them.

  • Mark Nichol


    Yes, #61 is Greek, and #90 is Latin.

  • Chadandy

    This should be on a poster.

  • John

    #20 ask any golfer, it’s le dernier pas that counts – the last step.

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