Common Latin Words and Phrases Used in English

This informal paper catalogs common Latin words and phrases and their meanings that have become fixtures in modern, vernacular American English.

No, I’m not suggesting that everybody should start studying and using Latin, but you are virtually guaranteed to run into some of these Latin terms in anything other than the lightest reading.

Many of these words and phrases are used primarily in law and medicine, and even the Roman Catholic Church, but quite a few have found their way into everyday vernacular language.

There are a few French phrases as well, particularly where there may be some confusion, especially when the French is derived from Latin anyway.

  1. a priori. A belief or conclusion based on assumptions or reasoning of some sort rather than actual experience or empirical evidence. Before actually encountering, experiencing, or observing a fact.
  2. a posteriori. A fact, belief, or argument that is based on actual experience, experiment, or observation. After the fact.
  3. ad astra. To the stars.
  4. ad hoc. For a particular situation, without planning or consideration of some broader purpose or application.
  5. ad hominem. Directed to a particular person rather than generally, such as an attack on a person rather than a position they are espousing.
  6. ad infinitum. Repeat forever.
  7. ad lib short for ad libitum. As you desire, at one’s pleasure. To speak or perform without preparation.
  8. ad nauseum. Repetition that has become annoying or tiresome.
  9. affidavit. He has sworn. Sworn statement.
  10. alma mater. Nourishing, kind, bounteous mother. School from which one graduated.
  11. alias. Also known as. Otherwise known as. Less commonly as the proper meaning of at another time, otherwise.
  12. alibi. In another place. Elsewhere. Reason one couldn’t have been in a location where an act was committed.
  13. alter ego. Other self. Another side of oneself.
  14. A.D. or AD short for anno Domini. In the year of our Lord. Number of years since the birth of Jesus Christ.
  15. a.m. or AM short for ante meridiem. Before midday (noon.) Morning.
  16. animus. Spirit, mind, courage anger. Animosity. Intense opposition and ill will towards something, somebody, or some social group, commonly emotional, passionate, and mean-spirited. Hatred.
  17. ante. Before. Earlier. In a Supreme Court opinion, ante refers to an earlier page of the same opinion.
  18. ante bellum. Before the war.
  19. ante mortem. Before death.
  20. bona fide. Genuine. Real. With no intention to deceive.
  21. c. or ca. or cca. short for circa. Around. About. Approximately. Relative to a certain year.
  22. carpe diem. Seize the day or moment. Make the best of the present rather than delay or focus on the future.
  23. casus belli. A reason or cause to justify or provoke a war, conflict, or belligerent response.
  24. caveat. Warning, caution, disclaimer, or stipulation.
  25. caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware. Warning to all buyers, but not from the seller.
  26. cf. short for confer. Compare to. In reference to, as a comparison.
  27. cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am — Descartes.
  28. consensus. Agreement. General or widespread agreement.
  29. corpus. Body, especially of written or textual matter such as books and papers.
  30. curriculum. Race. Course of a race. Path of a race. Subjects comprising a course of academic study.
  31. C.V. or CV short for curriculum vitae. The course of one’s life. Resume. List of significant academic and professional accomplishments, achievements, awards, education, and training.
  32. de facto. True or matter of fact as it is, regardless of intent, good reason, authority, or official reason for being such.
  33. de jure. True or matter of fact as a result of authoritative or official action.
  34. de novo. From new. From scratch. From nothing. Start again. Start over. Start from scratch.
  35. de rigueur. [French, not Latin] A characteristic is required, obligated, expected, common, usual, customary, or fashionable.
  36. Deus ex machina. God out of the machine. An unnatural or unexpected intervention.
  37. dictum. Something said. Noteworthy, authoritative statement or principle. Common wisdom.
  38. doctor. Teacher. Learned person. Doctor.
  39. ergo. Therefore.
  40. et al. short for et alia (neuter plural) or et alii (masculine plural) or et aliae (feminine plural). And others. And all of the others.
  41. et tu. And you. Even you. As in Et tu, Brute?
  42. Et tu, Brute? Accusation of betrayal.
  43. etc. short for et cetera. And more of a similar nature. And so on.
  44. e pluribus unum. — Out of many, one — U.S. motto.
  45. ex cathedra. From the chair. From a position of authority.
  46. ex libris. From the library of. A bookplate — statement of ownership of a book.
  47. ex post. After.
  48. ex post facto. After the fact.
  49. e.g. short for exempli gratia. For the sake of example. For example.
  50. facsimile short for fac simile. An exact copy of something, especially a printed, written, or drawn page. Technically, fac simile is the proper Latin phrase, while facsimile is a variant introduced into English.
  51. fait accompli. An accomplished fact. Done deal. Something that has already been done and must be accepted as fact that cannot be changed or at least not changed easily. Note: This is French, not Latin!
  52. fiat. Statement from authority. Made significant as a result of support from authority.
  53. habeas corpus. Bring forth the body. A legal request to bring a prisoner to court for a hearing on whether they may legally continue to be held.
  54. ibid. short for ibidem or ib idem. In the same place. For a citation, indicates that it is from the same place as the preceding citation.
  55. id. short for idem. From the same source. For a citation, indicates that it is from the same source, but not from the same location in that source. In contrast to ibidem (ibid.) which means the same location or place in the same source as the preceding citation.
  56. i.e. short for id est. That is. In other words.
  57. in absentia. Conducted in the absence of.
  58. in aqua sanitas. In water there is health.
  59. in camera. In chambers. In private, commonly for legal proceedings, in the judge’s office (chambers.) before digital photography cameras were little “chambers.”
  60. in curia. In court.
  61. in extremis. In the extreme. At the extreme.
  62. in situ. In position. In place.
  63. in toto. As a whole. Entirely. All of it.
  64. in vino veritas. In wine there is the truth.
  65. in vitro. In glass. In a laboratory, as distinct from in the natural world in a natural setting.
  66. in vivo. Within the living. Within a living organism, in a natural setting. May still occur within a laboratory, but within an organism within the laboratory.
  67. incognito. Unknown. With one’s identity concealed. This is actually an Italian word, derived from the Latin word incognitus.
  68. inter alia. Among others. Among other things.
  69. innuendo. By nodding. Implied. Indirectly implied. Suggested. Oblique allusion.
  70. intra. Within. In a Supreme Court opinion, refers to a decision of another court, typically an appeals court.
  71. ipso facto. By that very fact or act. Therefore.
  72. juris. Law. right.
  73. J.D. or JD short for Juris Doctor. Doctor of law. Teacher of law. Learned person of law. Yes, doctor is Latin — for teacher.
  74. lingua franca. Common language in a multi-language environment. Technically, it’s Italian.
  75. locum short for locum tenens. Holding a place (position), temporarily. Locum = place, tenens = holding. To hold the place of. Substitute for. Temporary worker, such as a doctor or clergyman, during the absence of the permanent worker. Also, lieutenant — who implements the power and authority of the senior officer to whom he is subordinate, effectively substituting for the more senior officer.
  76. lorem ipsum. Fake latin use as placeholder text in design.
  77. magnum opus. Great work. Greatest work. Masterpiece.
  78. mea culpa. Admit, acknowledge, or accept fault personally. My fault.
  79. mens rea. Mental state of a criminal. Criminal intent. An individual had in their mind the intent to commit a criminal act. Possessing the foreknowledge that their action was criminal.
  80. M.O. short for modus operandi. Mode or method of operation. How you do things.
  81. n.b. or N.B. short for nota bene. Note well. It is worth noting that.
  82. per capita. Per person, for each person, of a population. Individually, but not for any particular person.
  83. per cent. or percent short for per centum. For each one hundred.
  84. per curiam. By the court. By the full court. Under the name of the court, rather than under the name of individual judges. In reference to a decision by the court as a whole.
  85. per se. By itself. Intrinsically. Specifically.
  86. persona non grata. Person no longer welcome.
  87. p.m. or PM short for post meridiem. After midday (noon.) Afternoon.
  88. post. After. Later. In a Supreme Court opinion, post refers to a later page of the same opinion.
  89. post mortem. After death.
  90. prima facie. On its face. Accepted on its face. Accepted as true based on initial impression. Accepted as true unless proven false.
  91. pro bono. For free. No charge.
  92. pro rata. From the rate. Proportional from the rate.
  93. PS. short for post scriptum. Written after. After what has been written. In addition to what has been written. In addition.
  94. Q.E.D. or QED short for quod erat demonstrandum. That which was to be demonstrated. The proof is complete.
  95. quasi. As if. As though. Resembling. Similar but not quite exactly the same. Having many but not all the features of.
  96. quid pro quo. This for that. An exchange of goods or services. A barter transaction. Any contractual transaction.
  97. quo vadis. Where are you going? Where are you marching? Whither goest thou?
  98. R.I.P. or RIP short for requiescat in pace. Rest in peace. May he (or she) rest in peace.
  99. semper fi short for semper fidelis. Always faithful. Motto of the Marine Corps.
  100. sensu stricto or stricto sensu. In a narrow, tight, or strict sense. Strictly speaking.
  101. sic or [sic]. So, this. The previous word should be taken literally even if it is not correct or appropriate.
  102. sine qua non. Without which there is nothing. Something which is essential or necessary. Indispensable. Essence. Required. Expected. But-for, in legal matters.
  103. stare decisis. To stand by things decided. Legal doctrine of abiding by precedent of previous decisions relating to the same fact pattern.
  104. stat. or stat short for statim. Immediately. Now. without delay.
  105. status quo. The existing state of affairs. As it is. As things are.
  106. stricto sensu or sensu stricto. In a narrow, tight, or strict sense. Strictly speaking.
  107. sui generis. Of its own kind. Unique. Outside of existing categories. In law, outside of existing law.
  108. subpoena or sub poena. Under penalty. Request or demand for response or appearance. Under penalty of law.
  109. supra. Above. From the previous cited source.
  110. tabula rasa. Clean slate. Blank slate. Absence of any preconceived notions, ideas, goals, or purpose.
  111. terra firma. Firm land. Solid ground. Dry land. Land vs. air and sea. Solid earth. Earth in general vs. space and celestial objects.
  112. veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.
  113. verbatim. The same exact words. Literally.
  114. vs. short for versus. Against. In opposition to. As opposed to. In contrast to.
  115. veto. I forbid. Reject.
  116. vice versa. As well as the two immediately preceding subjects of a statement reversed. The same either way. The other way around.
  117. viz. short for videre licet or videlicet. Namely. That is.

This is a living list and will be updated on occasion.

Full list of Latin legal terms

The Wikipedia List of Latin legal terms page contains a relatively complete list of Latin terms used in legal briefs, only a few of which are contained in this paper.

Full list of “common” Latin phrases

The Wikipedia List of Latin phrases page contains a very comprehensive list of so-called common Latin phrases, although many or most of them are not common at all. Yes, it includes all of the common phrases, but mostly it lists uncommon if not obscure phrases. Also, although it does have some individual Latin words, it is missing a fair number of them included in the list in this paper.

50 Common Latin Phrases Every College Student Should Know

50 Common Latin Phrases Every College Student Should Know

Includes commentary about how a student can properly use these phrases.

Et hoc est finis

That’s Latin for this is the end.

This is the end of this paper, but not the end of this process. This paper will be updated as additional Latin words and phrases come to my attention.

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