Can You Translate These Common Latin Phrases?


By: Torrance Grey

6 Min Quiz

Image: pexels

About This Quiz

"Latin is a dead language/That is plain to see/ First it killed the Romans/And now it's killing me." This tongue-in-cheek rhyme comes from the days when Latin was a required part of middle-school and high-school curriculum. But how dead is Latin, really? Certainly, you've had to learn a lot of Latin if you've studied Christian theology, human anatomy, or the law.

But beyond that, Latin has crept into everyday English in dozens of ways. Did you know the word "innuendo" is Latin? It means, "by nodding" -- i.e., expressing something discreetly. (In fact, "i.e." itself is short for a Latin phrase! We won't tell you what it is here ... we'll be getting to that in the quiz!)

The motto of MGM studios is Latin? It's "Ars gratia artis," or "art for art's sake." And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drew on the Latin phrase "Carthago delendam est," (Carthage must be destroyed!) when declaring "war" on new rival Google Plus. Clearly, this "dead" language isn't going anywhere. True, we've lost some beautiful Latin expressions. Consider "Non nobis solum natis sumus," or "Not for ourselves alone are we born." And "Noli me tangere!" sounds a lot better than, "Hands off, pal!" Still, a number of great Latin expressions remain. To that end, we've created a 35-question quiz on the expressions that have become part of the English language. We hope you do well (Bona fortuna habe!) but we promise we won't make you stay after class and clap erasers if you don't.

Carpe diem

You probably knew this one. It's popular on signs and T-shirts, just like "Keep Calm and Carry On."


Et tu?

"Et tu, Brute?" was Caesar's famous (but apocryphal) statement to his friend Brutus in the Senate, when the Senators turned against him and killed him. Caesar was evidently surprised and saddened to find his supposed friend among the assassins.


Bona fide

You might hear this as a plural. "Bona fides" often mean someone's credentials, or proof that they are qualified to do something.


Semper fidelis

This is, of course, the motto of the US Marine Corps. It's sometimes shortened to "Semper fi."


Veni, vidi, vici

This was Caesar's brief report to the Senate about the battle of Zela. If he'd lived in the age of texting, he would have added, "NBD."


Alma mater

According to Merriam-Webster, this translates to "bounteous or fostering mother." Which is certainly a romantic way to look at the school that educated you!


Vice versa

This is something you say when an opposite is equally true, or something works both ways. "I house-sit for her when she travels, and vice versa."


Alter ego:

"Ego" is Latin for "I," so "alter ego" is a second self, a different identity. (Excuse the in-joke about chocolate, but you'll understand if you've had the excellent, if pricey, brand called "Alter Eco" for its environmental standards).


Ante bellum

This term, sometimes spelled as one word, comes up a lot in discussions of the American Civil War. If you visit the South, you might see historic "antebellum" homes.


Ad nauseam

This is a blunt way of saying someone's gone way too far, usually in repeating something. "He went on and on, ad nauseam, about how well the date went."


Id est

You're probably used to seeing this one as "i.e." Generally, it's used to rephrase something complicated in a simpler way.


Exemplum gratia

You might be used to seeing this phrase as "e.g." You might refer to "... a dead language, e.g. Latin."


Et cetera

Abbreviated as "etc.," et cetera" means "and other (similar) things." It's too bad English hasn't adopted the word "cetera" for "various stuff," as it'd be quite useful! "You're fired! Box up all your cetera and go."


Persona non grata

You might become a persona non grata because of your grating voice. But that seems pretty harsh to us!


Semper paratus

This one is lesser known. It's the motto of the US Coast Guard, the fifth branch of America's armed services.


Ad infinitum

"Ad infinitum" means "on and on" or "to infinity." See also "ad nauseam," meaning "To the point of nausea."


In vitro

Cells act differently "in vitro" -- in a lab setting, petri dish, or test tube -- than they do "in vivo," meaning in living tissue. This is why treatments for disease that are promising in the lab don't always work out in clinical trials.


In perpetuum

This is a legal term you might see in a will. Public access to a property might be granted "in perpetuum."


Sic semper tyrannis

This phrase became notorious when John Wilkes Booth shouted it after shooting Abraham Lincoln. At least, Booth wrote that he did so, in his diary. If no witnesses recalled it, it's likely because there was noise and confusion that would have made it hard to absorb a simple English phrase, much less an unfamiliar foreign-language one.


Dramatis personae

You'll see "dramatis personae" listed at the beginning of a play's script. Movies have "dramatis personae," too, but that term isn't used.


Ad hominem

An "ad hominem" attack is one that attacks the person, not their work, theory, etc. If you suggest that someone's ideas are invalid because they didn't go to college, that's an ad hominem attack. (Plus, snobbish).


Per ardua ad astra

This one might confuse a few people. "Ardua" is related to the English word "arduous," or "very hard." The word for "fire" is "ignis;" it doesn't start with "ar-."


Mea culpa

This one's well-known enough that you'll hear people use it in casual conversation: "Sorry, mea culpa!" (Or rather, you do again now that "my bad!" has finally faded away).


Nolo contendere

Don't spell this "No lo contendere," as if in Spanish. The "lo" part isn't a pronoun meaning "it." Rather, "Nolo" comes from "nolere," meaning "to wish not." The opposite is "volere," meaning simply "to wish (to)."


Sub rosa

Roses have a long history of representing secrecy, in more than one culture. Sometimes, confidential documents were sealed with wax on which a rose was imprinted, giving rise to the phrase "under the rose" to mean "secret, restricted or confidential" information.


Cui bono?

Literally translated, this phrase means "To whom the good?" "Bonus" is the Latin term meaning "good," or here, "benefit." Though not as common in legal circles as "prima facie," it asks the question "Who benefits (from committing a crime)?"


Rara avis

Another way to say "rara avis" (rare bird or oddity) is "cygnus niger," meaning "black swan." These were thought by Europeans not to exist, until they were discovered in parts of Australia and New Zealand.


Prima facie

"Prima facie" is one of many legal terms you'll be seeing in this quiz. Prima facie evidence is strong evidence that tends to prove one's case -- but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll win.


Casus belli

You heard this term a lot in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. The Bush administration's "casus belli" relied heavily on WMD, or Weapons of Mass Destruction, that Iraq was said to be in possession of.


Facta, non verba

Though we now think of "facts" as pieces of information, in Latin "facere" means "to do or make." "Verba," of course, is easier to translate.



As in modern-day Spanish, "te" is the familiar (friendly) "you." Therefore "benedicite" is a compound word meaning "Bless you."


Annus horribilus

Many people considered 2016 to be this, because of various world events. On his year-end show, comedian John Oliver did a segment that ended with a giant foam "2016" being exploded with dynamite.


Cogito ergo sum

The philosopher Rene Descartes came up with this idea. It was his starting point in untangling the thorny problem of whether we humans can be certain of anything.


Multum in parvo

This is the unofficial motto pug lovers have given to their favorite dog breed. They're saying the pug packs a lot of great qualities into a small package.


Corpus delicti

In legal settings, the "corpus delicti" is the body of the case, or its fundamental facts. "Corpus" is, of course, related to English words about the body, like "corpse" and "corporeal."


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