There is a widespread perception that Latin is a dead language, and has been so for quite some time. There is a point to that, since no country uses it as their official language, but for being dead it sure seems like it has plenty of life still in it. Latin is everywhere. In the sciences, in law, in medicine, in theology, and in our everyday lives. We borrow many expressions from it that remain completely unchanged and are still used in their original Latin forms.
Once perceived as an old-fashioned relic of antiquity that wasn’t of much use for everyday folk, the information era in which we live has sparked a renewed interest in many areas, especially politics and its historical context, in which Latin expressions and idioms are being constantly thrown around.
But let’s face it, whipping out the perfect Latin quip among the right crowd will surely get the wielder a few high-brow brownie points, and at the same time start a few eyerolls directed at the more clueless of the bunch who have no idea what hit them. It seems that there is an upside to knowing a bit of Latin, even if it’s only a few of the top hits, to avoid being caught off-guard. Put on your laurel wreath, and we’ll get your casual Latin into shape.
Alea Iacta Est
We start with the less common of the bunch, and this one means “the die has been cast”. Allegedly a contribution by Julius Caesar himself, it means that a decision has been taken and followed through up to a point at which there is no way back. Since it was probably uttered more than once when sending armies into battle, it has a bit of a grim ring to it.
This one has acquired a couple of different meanings over the years. The direct translation we get from Latin means “in good faith” or “with good faith”, which denotes a certain degree of good intentions. Nowadays it is also used to describe someone who is an expert in a certain field, as in “Dr. Smith is a bona fide neurosurgeon”. At least we hope he is.
Translated as “seize the day”, this expression is often used to encourage people to live and enjoy the present at its fullest, and to hell with the consequences. While it sounds deeply transcendental and stirs the creative soul that lies within us, a few days with dirty dishes piling up and unpaid bills pouring through the mail tend to burst the bubble rather quickly.
Meaning “of fact” or “in fact”, it has been traditionally used to describe something that is considered...well, fact. It also has another less flattering meaning, often used in politics to describe a person often unofficially in charge of a country or some other relevant organization. For example, nations that have leaders who have not been appointed by the people tend to be referred to as having “de facto leaders”.
This one is often misspelled in various forms, “per say” being one of the biggest offenders. The direct translation means “in itself”, and we commonly use it to shift relevance from something that is apparent, to something less obvious. “The problem wasn’t the quality of the performance per se, it was the fact that the text discussed controversial subjects”.
Quid Pro Quo
Something for something, eye for an eye, tit for tat, etc. Quid Pro Quo is one of those expressions that exists in pretty much every language, but for some reason we still use the Latin version very often. It can be used in a positive way to describe honest collaboration between human beings, or to call out shady business deals or plain bribery.