50 Latin Phrases You Should Know

By Mark Nichol

Latin expressions are often adopted into English, often with an extended or figurative meaning. Here are fifty of the most common phrases, followed by their literal translation in Latin and the meaning in English (omitted when the meaning follows the literal translation).

1. a posteriori (from the latter): based on experience
2. a priori (from the earlier): independent of experience
3. ad hoc (for this): said of something created or formed for a special case
4. ad infinitum (to infinity): something that keeps going forever
5. alea jacta est (the die is cast): said when a plot is set into motion
6. ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short)
7. casus belli: (cause of war): where the blame lies
8. caveat emptor (let the buyer beware): a reference to the principle that a customer is responsible for making sure that a product is in good working order
9. compos mentis (of healthy mind): sane
10. ex cathedra (from the chair): with the full authority of office (often used in reference to the Catholic pope’s infallibility, but also employed in other contexts)
11. ex post facto (after the fact): realized with hindsight
12. de facto (from fact): something that happens in practice but is not necessarily established by law
13. de jure (from law): the contrary of de facto; something established by law
14. dies irae (day of judgment)
15. dramatis personae (persons of the drama): refers to a list of actors, or to the principal participants of an event or in a group
16. genius loci (guardian spirit): the character of a place
17. honoris causa (for the sake of the honor): an honorary degree
18. horribile dictu (horrible to say)
19. in extremis (in the farthest reaches): in a difficult situation, or at the point of death
20. in flagrante delicto (in the burning crime): caught in the act
21. in medias res (into the middle of things): in the midst of action (said of the opening of a story or account)
22. in situ (in that place): in its original place
23. in toto (as a whole)
24. ipso facto (by the very fact): because of that fact
25. inter alia (among other things)
26. mea culpa (I am responsible): forgive me
27. memento mori (remember that you must die): a reminder of mortality
28. mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body)
29. mirabile dictu (amazing to say)
30. modus operandi (method of operating): way of working (also MO)
31. ne plus ultra (none more beyond): without equal, the greatest degree
32. non sequitur (it does not follow): said of something that does not logically relate to what came before
33. nota bene (note well): take note (also NB)
34. o tempora o mores (oh, the times, oh, the morals): said in criticism of behavior
35. omnia vincit amor (love conquers all)
36. panem et circenses (bread and circuses): said of things offered to the masses to distract them from what they should attend to for their own benefit
37. per se (by itself)
38. post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this): effect follows cause
39. prima facie (at first look): based on the first impression, or accepted as correct until proved otherwise
40. primus inter pares (first among equals)
41. pro forma (for form): for the sake of appearances or form
42. quid pro quo (this for that): something given in exchange for something else (hence quid, the nickname for the pound in UK currency)
43. quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who watches the watchers?): who shall protect us against those who (supposedly) protect us?
44. sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world): fame is fleeting in this world
45. sine qua non (without which thing . . . not): said of something indispensable
46. sub rosa (under the rose): happening or done in secret
47. sui generis (in its own class): unique
48. tabula rasa (scraped tablet): blank slate (the concept of the human mind before it receives impressions from experience)
49. tempus fugit (time flies)
50. terra firma (solid ground): often used figuratively to refer to certainty
51. vox populi (voice of the people)

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10 Responses to “50 Latin Phrases You Should Know”

  • Melissa

    What a great list! There is a typo on #21, however, which should read, “in medias res.”

  • Steve

    And one more typo on #3, which should read: “Alea jacta est”. Alea in Latin is feminine, while “jactus” is the masculine inflection.

  • Bill

    A useful list of phrases to know, but it’s best to avoid using nearly all of them.

  • Steve C

    What a great list. And then there are the Latin phrases we know mostly through their abbreviations: i.e., e.g., ibid., loc. cit., op. cit., and the ever popular etc.

  • Roberta B.

    How about Queen Elizabeth’s famous 1992 quote using “annus horribilis” – a terrible year! Also, thanks for the explanation for “quid” as we would say over here “a buck” for about a dollar.

  • Danilo

    Sorry but this list is full of mistakes … These sentence have a meaning that go a lot over their translation … some translations area lso wrong. It seems someone who did not studied latin … “Mea culpa” does not men forgive me, but “it is my fault, i am the responsible” … “Ipso facto” does not mean “because of that fact”, but “in itself” … please next time have them checked by a person that studied latin … “Mirabile Dictu” means “Fantastic! Incredible” … nothing related to “Amazing to say” … Please just take an italian who has these terms in his blood. And do not copy Wikipedia that is full of mistakes … “In extremis” does not mean “in a difficult situation”, but “at the last moment” … Please Please revise …

  • Danilo

    Vox populi = opinion of the people …nothing to do with the voice :)

  • venqax

    Why do you think their use should be avoided?

  • ApK

    @venqax, while I can’t really speak for Bill, I suspect he’s suggesting that too often, the use of Latin, particularly the less familiar phrases, either IS, or is SEEN as, pretentious, haughty, and puttin’ on airs. :-)
    Or at best, an unnecessary and exclusionary obfuscation.
    And if so, I think he’s probably right, thought I’d add an “often” qualifier, because I can certainly come up with times when the Latin would be the perfect choice.

  • Thebluebird11

    Just catching up.
    1. I don’t have much occasion to use these words I my own speech or writing, unfortunately, but as the title of the post says, one should KNOW them, because anyone who does a fair amount of decent reading (other than Dick and Jane books) is highly likely to come across all of these terms.
    2. @Danilo: people who live in glass houses… And idiomatically here in the US, the voice of the people means the opinion of the people…the people have spoken.
    3. It would be helpful to me (but a burden on Mark) to know the pronunciation of these terms. I don’t understand Latin pronunciation and can’t be sure that what I may have heard is correct. I am sure I could look it up myself, of course, but…tempus fugit…
    Thanks for a great list, Mark.

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