The Stories Behind Common Latin Phrases

‘Quid pro quo’ is the way to go — but only if you know how to use it correctly.

Most people don’t think of Latin as a living language, and for good reason: it’s technically dead. And yet at the same time, it’s all around us in the form of modern science, the legal field, philosophy, the modern Romance languages that it spawned and the common Latin phrases that we still use today in English.

You may not even realize you’re using Latin when you write “re:” in an email subject line, or when you use “e.g.” (exempli gratia) or “i.e.” (id est) in a sentence. Even tombstones do it! “Rest in peace” actually comes from “requiescat in pace.”

But since we’re not necessarily talking about death, here (but rather, all the ways in which Latin continues to live on in our everyday speech), here are a few common Latin phrases and the story of what they actually mean.

Ad hominem: To the person
When someone launches an ad hominem attack against someone, they’re not sticking to the argument at hand, but rather attacking the person behind the argument instead.

Ad nauseam: To the point of seasickness
Usually, we use the phrase ad nauseam when we’re talking about something that gets repeated excessively. You could say it gets repeated so excessively that it makes you a little nauseated. Hence the translation.

Bonafide: In good faith
When you say that something is a bonafide good deal, what you’re really saying is that it’s the real deal — a deal made in good faith. The Latin bona fides means “in good faith.”

Carpe diem: Seize the day
Most people know that this phrase translates to “seize the day,” or make the most of what’s currently available to you. And unfortunately, a lot of people also translate this phrase into a mediocre tattoo.

Et cetera: And so on; and the rest
Most frequently abbreviated to etc., this is one of the common Latin phrases we frequently take for granted. I mean, think of all the typing it’s saved you over the course of your life by indicating that you’re referring to an incomplete list.

Modus operandi: Manner of working
In casual speech, people often shorten this to “M.O.” – as in “his M.O. was to prop his feet on the desk while he studied his verses.” You get the gist.

Non sequitur: It does not follow
A non sequitur is a statement, joke or interjection that has seemingly nothing to do with anything that preceded it. Ugh, how random!

Per se: By itself
When people throw “per se” into a sentence (and usually for dramatic emphasis), what they’re really saying is “by, for, or in and of itself.” However, the way it’s often used today is a bit closer to “necessarily.”

Persona non grata: Unacceptable person
You probably don’t want to become a persona non grata, because that would mean you aren’t welcome here anymore. Where’s here? It’s not totally clear, but you can’t sit there anymore.

Quid pro quo: Something for something
What do you know about quid pro quo? Translating to “something for something,” this basically refers to something transactional whereas one thing is exchanged for another thing. You know, kind of like “an eye for an eye.”

Status quo: In the state in which
The Latin “status” meant “state,” and this phrase actually derives from the Latin in statu quō ante bellum erat (“the way it was before the war”). Today, it refers to the existing state of affairs, or things as they are.

Vice versa: The position being reversed
Is it A and then B, or B and then A? You could say that it’s either one way or vice versa. This phrase comes from the Latin vicis (“arrangement” or “order”) and versus (“reverse”).

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