English is heavily influenced by Latin. This is why a basic study of Latin can be useful in learning and remembering the meaning of a word. For example, bellum in Latin means ‘war’. Hence our word, belligerent, for describing someone behaving in a hostile way. “Para bellum” in Latin means ‘prepare for war’, the name applied to a German make of gun, the parabellum.Ye Old Script

From research (as a best guess) almost 30% of modern English words were coined on the basis of Latin precedent; a similar percentage may be of French origin; about 25% Old English (largely Germanic); and then 5% Greek. In total this would account for about 85%-88% of our English vocabulary in modern usage. Note that the above does not necessarily indicate a direct derivative. For example, there are many cases where words that came directly from French, originally derived from Latin. Similarly, words of Greek origin have generally entered English in one of three ways:

  1. Indirectly by way of Latin,
  2. Borrowed directly from Greek writers, or,
  3. Especially in the case of scientific terms, formed in modern times by combining Greek elements in new ways.

The direct influence of the classical languages began with the Renaissance and has continued ever since. For example, Latin and Greek roots are the chief sources of many English terms in science and technology, names of plants, and so on. Similarly, the names of many planetary and lunar features are derived from Latin. For example: Mare Tranquillitatis (on the moon); Meridiani Planum (a Martian feature); and, Betelgeuse (a star in the constellation Orion). Indeed, Latin names in astronomy are extremely common—and probably account for 90% of the nomenclature.

English is heavily influenced by Latin. And below are listed common Latin words, phrases and prefixes in use in modern English today.

Common Latin words

alibi: elsewhere.
alter: another.
bellum: war.
bonus: good.borealis: northern.
corpus: body.
derma: skin.
dies: day.
domus: home/house.
ego: I/me.
erectus: upright.
gens: family.
homo: human.
malus: bad.
magnus: great.
nemo: nobody.
omnis: everything.
pax: peace.
primus: first.
qui: who.
rex: king.
sapiens: wise.
terra: earth.
tempus: time.
virtus: virtue.
vivo: live.
vox: voice.

Short forms and phrases

cf (conferre): compare with. Used in writing to introduce something that should also be considered.
e.g. (exempli gratia): for example.
et al (abbreviation for et alia): and others; and other things.
et alibi: and elsewhere.
etc (etcetera): and so forth.
i.e. (id est): that is, or, in other words.
ibid. short for Ibidem meaning ‘in the same place’; ‘from the same source.’ For example, it indicates that you have already cited a specific source earlier in the document.
N.B. (nota bene): note well.
q.v. (quod vide): which see. For example, used to indicate there is more information on the topic presented elsewhere in the document.
viz (videlicet): namely; that is to say.
vs (versus): against; in contrast to something else.

Latin numeral prefixes (with Greek equivalent)

One: uni- (Gk: mono- )Two: bi- (Gk: duo-, di- )
Three: tri- (Gk: tri- )
Four: quad- (Gk: tetra- )
Five: quint- (Gk: penta- )
Six: sec- (Gk: hex- )
Seven: sept- (Gk: hept- )
Eight: octo- (Gk: oct- )
Nine: non- , noni-, nona-(Gk: ennea- )
Ten: dec- (Gk: dec- )

Latin prefixes

ad: to, towards.
ambi: both, on both sides.
extra: in addition to, outside.
infra: below.
inter: between.
intro: within, into.
liber: free.
multi: many.
omni: all.
trans: across, beyond.

Greek prefixes

endo: within.
exo: outside.
hyper: over.
hypo: under.
iso: equal.
macro: large.
micro: small.
mono: single, alone.
poly: many.
proto: first.
tele: distant, far.

Latin expressions

[Note: entries marked * are more regularly used in a legal context]

a priori: from the former. If you think something a priori, you are conceiving it before seeing the facts. Presupposing.

actus reus: the act of committing the crime. It is distinct from the criminal’s state of mind or intent (see mens rea). [*]

ad hoc: to this. Ad hoc refers to something that was created for a specific purpose or situation. An ad hoc political committee, for instance, is formed for one specific case.

ad hominem: directed against the person rather than against his arguments.

ad infinitum: to infinity. Something that goes ad infinitum keeps going forever. You could say that your wife hassles you ad infinitum, for example.

ad libitum: as a performer chooses; as you desire; often abbreviated as ad lib.

ad valorem: to the value. This expression is used when something is related to the value of an object or transaction. For example, an ad valorem tax is proportional to the value of the product.

amicus curiae: friend of the court. One who is not a party to a case. [*]

bona fide: good faith. In contract law, for instance, parties must always act in good faith if they are to respect the obligations. [*]

ceteris paribus: other things being equal. This expression is often used in economics: in order to impact something on the economy (e.g., inflation or unemployment), you need to hold other variables fixed.

compos mentis: having a sound mind. [*]

consensus omnium: by agreement of all. [also see omnium consensu]

corpus delicti: body of the crime. [*]

cui bono: legal principle that someone who would gain something from an action is probably responsible for the action. [*]

de facto: common in practice, but not established by law. For example, English is the de facto official language of the United States. [*]

de jure: by law. To make English the de jure official language of a given region, for instance. [*]

deuces tecum: a person served with a subpoena duces tecum might be required to present documents, such as business records or other pieces of physical evidence, for the inspection of the court. [*]

dictum (plural dicta): a statement that forms part of the judgment of a court. [*]

difficilior lectio: more difficult reading.

dis aliter visum: the gods have deemed otherwise; that is, the gods had other ideas.

dura mater: thick membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

ex parte: from, by, or for one party in a dispute. An ex parte decision is one decided by a judge without requiring all of the parties to the controversy to be present. [*]

habeas corpus: (we command that) you bring forth the body. In this case, the “body” (corpus) refers to a living person who is being held in prison. The phrase has nothing to do with producing the corpse of an allegedly-murdered person. [*]

honoris causa: for the sake of the honour. This is an honorary degree where an academic institution grants a doctorate to someone without the formal requirements (exams and the like). Usually the person receiving the degree has connections with the University or has made important achievements in a certain field.

in situ: in its original place.

in insomnia veritas: in sleep, truth.

in loco parentis: in place of the parent. This can refer to an individual or institution that is charged with taking care of a minor on behalf of the parent. [*]

in toto: entirely.

in vino veritas: in wine, truth; under the influence of alcohol a person tells the truth.

in vivo: occurring only in a living body.

in vitro: occurring outside a living body.

inter alia: among other things.

ipso facto: by the fact itself. For example, parents who have deliberately mistreated their child are ipso facto unfit custodians. [*]

lex scripta: written law, statutory law. [*]

locus standi: the legal capacity to sue or approach the court. That is, only the person who suffered some injury can approach the court. [*]

mens rea: guilty mind. The state of mind, or intent of the criminal (as opposed to the act itself, which is actus reus). The state of mind statutorily required in order to convict a particular defendant of a particular crime. In some legal systems the law requires that when a crime is committed, the perpetrator must have the intention to commit the crime. For example, a driver who strikes and kills a pedestrian because of faulty brakes is guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder. There was no intent to kill so the mind was not guilty. On the other hand, the wife who repeatedly runs over her husband with her SUV is guilty of murder because of her mens rea. [*]

mirabile dictu: wonderful to tell.

mirabile visu: wonderful to see.

mutatis mutandis: with necessary changes. This expression is used to express agreement to something that, however, still needs to be changed or amended. [*]

nem.con (nemine contradicentre): no one disagreeing.

nil desperandum: never despair; it’s never too late; nothing to be despaired of.

non sequitur: it does not follow. An incongruous statement, unrelated to the previous statement; unwarranted conclusion; one that does not follow from its premises.

obiter dicta: other things said (as in a legal consideration, said “by the way”). A judge’s opinion offered in the course of a judgment but having no legal force. [see ratio decidendi] [*]

omnium consensu: by the agreement of all. By common consent. [also see consensus omnium]

passim: here and there, that is, can be found in various places in the text.

per diem: a specific daily allowance; by the day. An expense allowance.

per se: by itself. If something exists per se, for instance, it exists by itself, regardless of external factors.

post partum: after childbirth.

prima facie: by first instance. This refers to cases with sufficient evidence to warrant going forward with an arraignment (formal reading of a criminal charge). [*]

pro bono: (the original phrase is pro bono publico) for the public good. Sometimes high-priced lawyers come forward to defend suspects who would otherwise have to take their chances with someone from the Public Defender’s office. They work on the case pro bono, i.e., they don’t charge a fee. [*]

pro tem: temporary; for the time being. Essentially means, as a temporary measure.

Q.E.D. (Quod erat demonstrandum): which was to be demonstrated. This Latin abbreviation is often used at the end of mathematical theorems in order to demonstrate that proof is complete.

quid pro quo: something for something. For example, a public prosecutor makes a deal with a guilty party, offering them a shorter sentence in exchange for information that will enable them to convict other criminals. Another example of quid pro quo might occur between two lawyers, each of whom gives up some advantage to gain another. [*]

ratio decidendi: the reason (as in a legal decision). [*]

res adjudicata, or res judicata: a matter already settled in court. It cannot be raised again. [*]

res gestae: essentially allows for hearsay evidence to be presented in court under certain circumstances. Normally, hearsay is inadmissible because of unfairness or inaccuracy. Under res gestae hearsay is admissible where statements were made naturally, spontaneously and without deliberation. In other words, statements made “off the cuff” are admissible. [*]

semper fidelis: always faithful.

semper vigilo: always alert; always awake.

sic: thus. Sic is usually used in newspapers or other publications (placed within square brackets [sic]) to indicate that the spelling error or unusual phrase in a quotation was reproduced as it was in the source, and therefore it is not an editorial error. Intentionally so written. Literal: so thus, in this manner.

sine prole: without offspring; childless.

sine qua non: without which cause not. Essential condition or perquisite. Absolutely essential.

solvitur ambulando: a problem is solved by walking.

subpoena: a witness summons. To order a person to go to court to answer questions. [*]

tabulae rasa: (pl rasae)The mind before it receives the impressions gained from experience. Blank slate.

vice versa: the other way around. If you write “John loves Mary, and vice versa,” it means that Mary also loves John.

vide supra: used to direct a reader to previous text, as in, “see above”.

voir Dire: meaning ‘to see to speak’, or ‘speak the truth’. [Actually, a French phrase] [*]

The process of questioning prospective jurors for jury selection in a particular case. During this process, the court, counsel, or both (depending on the jurisdiction and the presiding judge’s rules) typically question prospective jurors in open court to determine their suitability for jury service. It may include the process of questioning expert witnesses about their backgrounds and qualifications to determine their suitability to give testimony in open court. From Thomson Reuters Practical Law.

Notable phrases, mostly Latin

[Note: entries marked [FR] are actually from the French]

alea jacta est: the die is cast: This famous phrase (battle cry) was said by Julius Caesar as he led his army across the Rubicon river into northern Italy.

carpe diem: seize the day. This phrase comes from a poem by Horace. The phrase was made famous when it was used in the movie Dead Poets Society.

cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. This phrase was originally said in French by René Descartes, and it represents a corner-stone of the Western philosophy. The Latin translation is more widely used, however.

coup de foudre: lightning flash, a sudden event. [FR]

crise de nerfs: a nervous breakdown; hysterical fit; literally “a crisis of nerves”. [FR]

de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est: of the dead nothing but good is to be said. In other words, “speak no ill of the dead.”

dernier cri: the latest thing; the newest fashion. [FR]

deus ex machina: God out of a machine. Latin translation from ancient Greek. In Greek and Roman drama, when a plot was complicated or tangled, the play writers would just insert a God in the final act in order to solve all the problems. Usually a crane (machina) was used to drop the actor on stage, hence the name.

divide et impera: divide and reign. It was a theory proposed by Niccolò Machiavelli and used previously by the Roman Senate to dominate the Mediterranean.

faute de mieux: for want of something better. [FR]

homo homini lupus: man is a wolf to men. This phrase was originally said by Pluto, but other philosophers also used it, including Bacon and Hobbes. The meaning is quite straight forward.

mens sana in corpore sano: a healthy mind in a healthy body.

veni vidi vici: I came, I saw, I conquered. Another phrase said by Julius Caesar, this time upon the victory over Pharnaces, King of Pontus.

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar

Last updated: Thursday, 19th October 2023