Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Intelligenti pauca

with 21 comments

Inscription for 5th century Roman Consul Deciu...
Image via Wikipedia

I was reading a fairly long article in a quality national newspaper about government policy, when the writer suddenly asked: Cui bono?

Cui what?

By the time I’d found my dictionary and learnt that this means something along the lines of ‘for whose benefit?’ or ‘who stands to gain?’, I’d lost interest in reading the rest of the article and went off to make a cup of tea.

The moral of this tale is that writers should not pepper their work with Latin and other foreign words and phrases if there’s a good chance their readers will not understand them. And especially not if the English version will do just as well (and often better).

Some writers think that throwing in a foreign phrase here and there elevates their writing and makes them sound clever. It doesn’t. It just shows they know some foreign words and don’t care if their readers don’t understand them.

So why have I included a list of Latin and other foreign words and phrases here? Well, first of all this is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive list. I’ve chosen those words and phrases which seem to crop up most often and which, therefore, it’s probably wise to know the meaning of. However, I’m most definitely not recommending that you should start using them indiscriminately in your own writing.


This post is about writing clearly and ensuring your readers understand what you are saying. Having said that, Latin is a wonderful language and fascinating to study.

I strongly recommend this wonderful overview of Latin on The Squirrelbasket blog. And on the same blog, the ungothroughsomeness of stuff, about a man who tried to ban Latin words and use good old Anglo-Saxon instead.

I also recommend Harry Mount’s easy-to-read Latin primer, Amo, Amas, Amat…And All That. Mount says:

To read the most famous Roman of them all, perhaps the greatest leader of all time (Caesar), in his original language and to recite some of the most heart-breaking poetry ever written as it was meant to be read… Is that not reason enough for doing Latin?

Note that foreign words and phrases are usually italicised in text, although this isn’t always necessary for everyday words and phrases such as ‘vice versa’.

Find more writing guides.

Latin words and phrases

If you want to read a detailed guide to Latin words and phrases get hold of a copy of the excellent Nil Desperandum by Eugene Ehrlich. In the meantime, here are some of the most commonly used ones:

Ab initio

‘From the start’

For example:

The project was a guaranteed success ab initio.

Ad hoc

‘To this/for this’

This means ‘for a particular purpose only’, for example:

Let’s set up an ad hoc meeting to discuss absenteeism.

Ad hominem

‘Against the man’

This means to argue against a theory or proposition by personally attacking the person putting it forward, rather than the theory or proposition itself.

Ad infinitum


For example:

The advert will run ad infinitum on the television.

A fortiori

Broadly speaking, this means ‘for a similar but even more convincing reason’ or ‘even more so’. For example:

All the reasons given for expelling the head boy applied a fortiori to his deputy.

Ad nauseam

‘To the point of nausea’

This phrase is generally understood by most people and means going on and on in an extremely boring or intolerable way. For example:

He droned on and on ad nauseam.


‘Nursling’ from ‘alere’ meaning ‘to nourish’

These are school, college or university graduates. Alumna being female, alumnus being male, and the plural alumni being used to refer to either sex.

Annus mirabilis

‘A remarkable year’

This can refer to a year that is remarkable or notable. For example, a year in which something catastrophic happened, or one in which something wonderful happened.

Annus horribilis

‘A terrible year’.

Queen Elizabeth II coined this phrase, basing it on ‘annus mirabilis’.

Ante bellum

‘Before the war’

This has become ‘antebellum’ in the English language meaning ‘pre-war’, for example:

In the antebellum south, traditional ways of life continued unhindered.

Note that ‘antebellum’ is most frequently used when referring to the American Civil War.

See also ‘Casus belli’

Bona fide

‘In good faith’

This phrase is, of course, widely used and understood to mean ‘in good faith’ or ‘real and genuine’. For example:

The pot is a bona fide relic from the Roman era.

Bona fides

If you produce your bona fides you are proving that you are trustworthy and have honourable intentions.

See also ‘Mala fide’

Carpe diem

‘Seize the day’

This is used to mean ‘enjoy the present without worrying about the future’.

Casus belli

‘Justification for war’

This example is from a newspaper article:

Mr Blair says it complies exactly with his argument that the casus belli was Saddam’s refusal to follow UN resolutions.

I would argue that this would be improved by replacing the Latin with English:

Mr Blair says it complies exactly with his argument that the justification for war was Saddam’s refusal to follow UN resolutions.

Caveat emptor

‘Let the buyer beware’

This maxim refers to situations where buyers should be cautious as they, not the seller, are taking the risk in buying.



For example:

He was born circa 1920.

This can be abbreviated to ‘c.’ or ‘ca.’.

Cogito ergo sum

‘I think therefore I exist’

As the philosopher Descartes was wont to say.

Compos mentis

‘In full possession of mental powers’

This is used to describe someone who is of sound mind. Its opposite is ‘non compos mentis’.

Cui bono?

‘Who stands to gain?’

Cum laude

‘With praise’

This is most commonly used in connection with American university degrees as follows:

Top degree – summa cum laude (with greatest praise)

Second highest degree – magna cum laude (with great praise)

Third highest degree – cum laude

De facto

‘From the fact’

This is used to mean ‘in fact’ whether or not the circumstances are officially or legally recognised. For example:

The unelected military leader is now the country’s de facto president.

De jure

This means ‘sanctioned by law’.

De profundis

‘Out of the depths’

This is used to mean ‘out of the depths of despair’.

Deus ex machina

‘A god out of a machine’

This phrase is derived from ancient Greek theatre, when the denouement of a play involved a ‘god’ descending onto the stage with the help of a mechanical device. The role of the god was to tie up all the loose ends and sort everything out satisfactorily.

The phrase can be used to describe any completely unexpected event that results in a positive outcome. It is often used to refer to an extremely unlikely plot development in a creaky book or film (for example, the murderer dying of a heart attack just as he is about to plunge in the knife).


This title is conferred on individuals who have retired from a full-time academic position, but retain their title on an honorary basis. The first refers to a male, the second to a female.



This word is used by publishers as a posh way of flagging up the fact that there is an error in their publication. Errata is the plural.



Et al (1)

An abbreviation for ‘et alibi’ meaning ‘and elsewhere’.

Et al (2)

An abbreviation for:

Et alii – ‘and other men’

Et aliae – ‘and other women’

Et alia – ‘and other things’

Et tu Brute

‘You also Brutus’

These are, of course, Caesar’s words to his trusted friend who had joined others in murdering him. Now the phrase is used to suggest any situation where a betrayal has occurred.

Ex cathedra

‘From the chair’

This phrase is used to show that a person speaks with knowledge and authority. For example:

Her position as education secretary means she can speak ex cathedra on the subject of parental choice.

Exempli gratia

‘For instance’ or ‘for example’

This is commonly shortened to ‘e.g.’ or ‘eg’. Some writers use this phrase incorrectly to mean ‘that is’.

See also ‘Ex gratia’ and ‘Id est’.

Ex gratia

‘Out of kindness’

This refers to something that is given as a favour or where nothing is expected in return, for example, an ‘ex gratia payment’.

Habeas corpus

‘You may have the body’

This legal writ underpins the sanctity of personal liberty under the British legal system. It means that an individual must be either freed or brought before a court of law.

Ibid (scholarly)

This is a shortened form of the word ‘ibidem’ and is used to refer to an identical source already cited.

Id est

‘That is’

Commonly shortened to ‘i.e’.

In flagrante delicto

‘While the crime is blazing’

This means being caught red-handed in the middle of committing a crime. For example:

The police arrested him in flagrante delicto.

Infra dig

This is short for ‘infra dignitatem’ and means ‘beneath one’s dignity’ or ‘undignified’. For example:

She thought doing household chores was infra dig.

In loco parentis

‘In the place of a parent’

This commonly used term is used to refer to anyone who is looking after a child in place of the child’s parents. For example:

She is acting in loco parentis while the parents are away.

In medias res

‘Into the midst of things’

This term is most commonly used when writing about books that start in the middle of the action, as this example from a newspaper article shows:

In medias res is how most of the novels begin, with children hurried into a story that has already begun.

You must decide for yourself if you think this sentence would sound better and be more understandable without its Latin introduction:

Most of the novels begin with children hurried into a story that has already begun.

Intelligenti pauca

‘A word to the wise’

Inter alia

‘Among other things’

For example:

The food and service inter alia has completely put me off the hotel.

See also ‘Inter alios’.

Inter alios

‘Among other people’

For example:

Helen, Bob, John and Bill inter alios came to the party.

See also ‘Inter alia’.

In toto

This means ‘totally’ or ‘entirely’. This example is from a newspaper article:

Indeed, sometimes a colleague would write a letter in toto, and Einstein would simply add his signature at the end.

Intra vires

‘Within the powers’

This phrase is used to describe lawful actions that an individual or institution takes. For example:

The government acted intra vires when it passed the legislation.

See also ‘Ultra vires’.

Ipso facto

‘By that very fact’

This is used to mean ‘irrespective of any other factors, including considerations of right and wrong’. For example:

Despite the extreme circumstances of the case, he is ipso facto guilty of murder.

Magnum opus

‘A great work’

This phrase is used to describe someone’s greatest work. For example:

Middlemarch is George Eliot’s magnum opus.

Mala fide

‘In bad faith’

This is the opposite of ‘bona fide’.

See also ‘Bona fide’.

Mea culpa

‘By my fault’

This means ‘I am to blame’. For example:

“Mea culpa,” he said. “I left the door open and now the cat’s missing.”

Memento mori

‘Remember to die’

This phrase is used to refer to an object, for example a skull, that reminds us we will inevitably die.

Modus operandi

‘Method of working’

When the police describe a criminal’s ‘M.O.’ they are talking about his ‘modus operandi’ – the way he goes about committing a crime. However, the term can be applied to any activity.

See also ‘Modus vivendi’.

Modus vivendi

‘A way of living’

This phrase is used to describe a compromise or accommodation that a group of people come to when they have to get along together. For example:

The scientists, cooped up together in the spacecraft for three months, would have to reach a modus vivendi.

See also ‘Modus operandi’.

Ne plus ultra

‘Not more beyond’

This is used to mean ‘the best there is’ or ‘the highest possible achievement’, for example:

Middlemarch is the ne plus ultra of George Eliot’s work.

Nil desperandum

‘Nothing is to be despaired of’

Commonly used to mean ‘never say die’ or ‘don’t give up’ or ‘don’t despair’.


An abbreviation of ‘nota bene’, meaning ‘note well’.

Non sequitur

‘It does not follow’

This phrase is used to highlight the fact that one thing does not logically follow on from another. The following is an example of a non sequitur:

You’re very rich and so must be very happy.

Op. cit. (scholarly)

This is short for ‘opere citato’ and means ‘in the work cited’. It is usually used in an author’s notes or footnotes as a brief way of telling the reader that the full name of the publication being referred to has already been cited.

Passim (scholarly)

‘Here and there’

Beloved of the satirical magazine Private Eye, this word is used to tell the reader that a topic just mentioned is also discussed in a variety of other places within the publication or series of publications.



Per diem

‘By the day’

This phrase can be used to mean ‘daily’ or ‘every day’ and can also mean a payment to cover daily expenses.

Per se

‘By or in itself’

‘Per se’ is used to mean ‘intrinsically’. For example:

I don’t dislike red per se, I just don’t think it suits me.

Persona grata

‘An acceptable person’

Its opposite is ‘persona non grata’ as in ‘He is persona non grata’ (not ‘He is a persona non grata’).


‘per procurationem’ or in its shortened form ‘per pro’.

This means ‘by delegation to’ As you know, the abbreviation ‘pp’ (always written lower-case) is used at the end of letters when someone signs on behalf of someone else. The trouble is, people often get this the wrong way round. If Bill Smith is signing on behalf of Sarah Green, this should be written:

Sarah Green pp Bill Smith

… and not the other way round.

Prima facie

‘At first sight’

A legal term, as in ‘prima facie evidence’, meaning there are sufficient facts and evidence to suggest someone’s guilt unless this can be disproved. For example:

We have prima facie evidence – he was found holding the smoking gun.

Primus inter pares

‘The first among equals’

Strictly speaking this refers to a man. The equivalent term for a woman is ‘prima inter pares’. The term is most commonly used in relation to the prime minister of Great Britain. For example:

He is primus inter pares.

Pro bono

This is a fairly well-known phrase, and is actually a shortened version of ‘pro bono publico’ meaning ‘for the public good’. It is a phrase very often used when describing work carried out by lawyers for free, for example:

The barrister took on the work pro bono.

Pro rata

‘In proportion’

Most people are familiar with this term thanks to job advertisements for part-time positions which offer ‘pro-rata’ salaries – in other words, a proportion of the full-time salary.

Pro tempore


Often abbreviated to ‘pro tem’. For example, a ‘leader pro tem’ will stay in office until someone permanent is appointed.

Quid pro quo

‘Something for something’

For example:

We will give them an extra day off as a quid pro quo for working at the weekend.

QED (Quod erat demonstrandum)

‘Which was to be demonstrated’

This is most appropriately used at the end of a mathematical solution to claim that the problem has been solved.

Q.V. (scholarly)

This is an abbreviation of ‘quod vide’ meaning ‘which see’. It is used to tell the reader that an explanation for what has been written (perhaps a particularly obscure term or unusual word)  is provided elsewhere in the publication.

Reductio ad absurdum

‘Reduction to absurdity’

This means showing that an argument or proposition leads to an absurd or illogical conclusion. This example of its use is from a newspaper article:

A standard Whitehall technique when confronted by embarrassing allegations is to dismiss them by caricature or resorting to a kind of reductio ad absurdum.

Sic (scholarly)


This word is written in brackets after an unusual or unexpected word to assure the reader that what has been written is not a typo. For example:

Mr Smyth (sic) joined the meeting after lunch.

Sine die

‘Without a day’

This phrase is used to mean ‘no day has been fixed’. So if your favourite film has been withdrawn from the cinema sine die, go out and buy the DVD.

Sine qua non

‘Without which not’

This phrase is used to mean ‘an indispensable requirement’. For example:

The re-election of the chairwoman is a sine qua non for the continued success of the committee.

Stet (scholarly)

‘Let it stand’

This word is used by proofreaders who initially cross out a word or section of text, but then change their mind and decide to keep it in. They will highlight the text they now want to leave in by underlining it with a broken line and adding the word ‘stet’ next to it.

Sub judice

‘Before the courts’

You will often hear people in public life say:

I can’t discuss this particular case, as it’s sub judice.

This means the matter is still being dealt with by the law and should not be discussed in public by anyone involved in the case.

Sui generis

‘Of its own kind’

This phrase is used to mean ‘unique’.

Supra (scholarly)

A term used by writers to draw the reader’s attention to something written earlier in the publication.

See also ‘Vide supra’ and ‘Vide infra’.

Tabula rasa

‘A scraped writing tablet’

This term is used to mean a ‘clean slate’, as when someone approaches an activity with fresh eyes and without preconceptions.

Tempus fugit

‘Time flies’

Terra firma

‘Solid land’

Terra incognita

‘Unknown territory’

This phrase is used to describe places or subject areas which are unknown. For example:

Pure mathematics is terra incognita to me.

Having crossed the border, we found ourselves in terra incognita.

Ultra vires

‘Beyond the powers’

This phrase is used to describe actions taken by individuals or institutions that are outside their legal powers. For example:

The council acted ultra vires when it ordered the building to be demolished.

See also ‘Intra vires’.

Ut infra (scholarly)

‘As below’

In other words ‘as cited below’.

Ut supra (scholarly)

‘As above’

In other words, ‘as cited above’.

Veni, vidi, vici

‘I came, I saw, I conquered’

Vice versa

This means ‘the other way round’ or ‘conversely’ and is a common expression in English.

Vide infra (scholarly)

‘See below’

A writer can use this phrase to draw the reader’s attention to something written later in the publication.

See also ‘Vide supra’ and ‘Supra’.

Vide supra (scholarly)

‘See above’

A writer can use this phrase to draw the reader’s attention to something written earlier in the publication.

See also ‘Supra’ and ‘Vide infra’.


‘Long live’


This is short for ‘videlict’ meaning ‘it is permitted to see’.

It is used to mean ‘namely’ or ‘to wit’. For example:

I sold most of my stock, viz all the stationery and most of the office furniture.

Vox populi

‘The voice of the people’

Much more commonly known as ‘vox pop’, for example:

The journalist did a quick vox pop on the streets to find out what people thought.

French words and phrases


This is from ‘aider’ meaning ‘to help’ and ‘mémoire’ meaning ‘memory’. It simply means some form of reminder.


This comes from ‘apercevoir’ meaning to ‘perceive’ or ‘catch sight of’. ‘Aperçu’ means an insight or an outline. 


This derives from ‘à-propos’ meaning ‘aptness’ or ‘to the purpose’ and is used to describe something that is appropriate. It can also form the phrase ‘apropos of’ meaning ‘in respect of’. This is sometimes used as in the following sentence:

He told me his wife was going bald apropos of nothing.

‘Apropos of nothing’ meaning that the statement was made out of the blue.

Au courant

This means ‘up-to-date’, and is used most often in relation to someone being au courant with current affairs, but can also refer to the latest fashion.

Beau geste

This means a fine, noble or gracious act or gesture.

The plural is ‘beaux gestes’.

Beau monde

This phrase describes the world of fashion and high society.

Bête noire

‘Black beast’

This term is used to refer to something or someone particularly disliked or dreaded. For example:

Sitting exams is my bête noire.

The plural is ‘bêtes noires’

Bien pensant

adjective: conventional or orthodox in attitude.

Bien-pensant (note the added hyphen)

Noun: a conventional or orthodox person.

Bon mot

‘Good word’

This means a clever, witty or fitting comment.

Bon vivant

This is used to describe someone who enjoys the high life, especially luxurious food and drink. In English, we also use the term ‘bon viveur’ – but this is not used in French.

The plural of bon vivant is ‘bons vivants’.

Carte blanche

‘Blank paper’

When a person or organisation has carte blanche, it means they have unrestricted power or discretion to act as they please.

The plural is ‘cartes blanches’.

Cause célèbre

This phrase is used to refer to a famous trial, legal dispute or controversy.

The plural is ‘causes célèbres’.

Comme ci comme ça

This means ‘so-so’, ‘average’ or ‘indifferent’. For example:

The standard of food in the hotel was comme ci comme ça.

Comme il faut

This phrase is used to mean ‘correct’ or ‘fitting’. For example:

It was comme il faut that he was sacked on the spot.

Coup de grâce

‘Blow of mercy’

In the sense of being a ‘blow of mercy’ this phrase is used to mean the delivery of a final, fatal blow, very often as an act of mercy. However, the phrase is also used in a more upbeat sense. For example:

Following an astonishing array of tricks, the magician’s coup de grâce was to pull a live elephant from her sleeve.

The plural is ‘coups de grâce’.

Coup d’état

‘Stroke of state’

This phrase is used to describe a sudden or violent takeover of governmental power. The plural is ‘coups d’état’.

Cri de coeur

‘Cry of the heart’

This is a passionate or heartfelt appeal. It is a slight distortion of the French phrase ‘cri du coeur’ (cry of the heart).

The plural is ‘cris de coeur’.

De rigueur

‘Of strictness’

If something is de rigueur it is required by the rules of etiquette, social norms, or standards of fashion. For example:

It is de rigueur to stand when she comes in the room.

Black hats and matching shoes are de rigueur this season.

De trop

This describes something that is too much, unwanted or in the way. In French it literally means ‘of too much’. This example is from the Guardian:

But should a trip to America for some decent shirts seem a little de trop, there is succour in this country.

En famille

This can be used to describe being at home with one’s family, or doing things in an informal and friendly way.

Enfant terrible

‘Terrible child’

An enfant terrible is a person much given to making outrageous or outspoken remarks, or behaving in an unconventional way. For example:

He is the enfant terrible of the arts world.

The plural is ‘enfants terribles’.

Entre nous

When speaking ‘entre nous’, we are speaking confidentially or just between ourselves. For example:

I must tell you, entre nous, that I am applying for another job.

Fait accompli

‘Accomplished fact’

If something is fait accompli, it is irreversible or beyond alteration. For example:

The marriage is a fait accompli.

The plural is ‘faits accomplis.’

Faux pas

‘False step’

If you commit a faux pas, you have made a social blunder.

The plural of faux pas is the same as the singular (one faux pas or two faux pas).

Je ne sais quoi

‘I know not what’

If someone or something has a certain je ne sais quoi, they have an elusive, usually very attractive quality, that is hard to define.

Mise en scène

This phrase is used to describe the setting for a stage play, or the objects used in such a setting. It can also mean, more generally, the setting or environment where an event takes place.

Mot juste

The mot juste is the exact or most appropriate word or expression for the particular circumstances.

The plural is ‘mots justes’.

Nom de guerre

‘War name’

This phrase is used to mean ‘pseudonym’.

The plural is ‘noms de guerre’.

Nom de plume

This simply means ‘pen name’.

The plural is ‘noms de plume’.


‘A knowing how to do’

Savoir-faire means knowing how to do and say things correctly. For example:

She demonstrated great savoir-faire when dealing with the foreign visitors.

Tout de suite

This means ‘at once’ or ‘straightaway’.

Tout le monde

This phrase is used to mean ‘everyone’ or ‘all the world’.


Other foreign words and phrases


This word, derived from Spanish, means an ardent fan, devotee or supporter. The plural is ‘aficionados’.


From the German, this word means ‘acute dread and anxiety’. For example:

The thought of speaking in public caused him great angst.

Dolce vita

An Italian phrase meaning ‘the sweet life’ or ‘the good life’, often associated with physical pleasure.


This German word literally means ‘double-goer’ and is used in English to mean an exact ghostly double of someone. (Don’t confuse this with the Doppler effect which is to do with changes in sound or light wave frequency.)


This Russian word means ‘publicity’ or ‘openness’. It became common currency in the 1980s under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachov in the former Soviet Union when he introduced a policy of public openness and accountability.

See also ‘Perestroika

Hoi polloi

This Greek phrase literally means ‘the many’ and is used to refer to the ‘common’ people. Strangely, many people get confused and use this phrase to refer to ‘posh’ people.


This Russian word means ‘reconstruction’ and was commonly used in the UK media in the 1980s to refer to Mikhail Gorbachov’s efforts to reconstruct the economy of the former Soviet Union.

See also ‘Glasnost’.


The English language has borrowed this word from the German to mean ‘taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune’. For example:

The schadenfreude he felt when his friend was demoted filled him with shame.

Sotto voce

From the Italian meaning ‘under one’s voice’, this means to speak quietly or in an undertone to avoid being overheard.


This German word, literally meaning ‘time spirit’, is used to describe the spirit, outlook or attitude of a particular time or place. For example:

The prevailing zeitgeist meant people were unwilling to speak their minds, and rarely protested.


21 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent! My rule is don’t use a foreign phrase unless an English equivalent (of about the same brevity) doesn’t exist. I don’t think we have terms for “Schadenfreude” or “naive” (the latter having been entirely co-opted by now). For example (!), I like to use “e.g./i.e.” because they’re concise signals; I don’t use “inter alia” because “among others” works better and is about the same length.

    “Nom de plume/guerre” is a whole ‘nother discussion. It started in French as “nom de guerre,” for a soldier’s assumed name. A British writer, probably unhappy with the connotation of war, created “nom de plume” is about 1850, from which we get “pen name.” “Nom de guerre” is so skunked now that it’s better to use “pseudonym” (also from French).

    “Psychological moment” has a similarly muddied history. In German, it was “momentum,” but was mistranslated into French as “moment.” It then entered English and was distorted even more.

    Michael Farrell

    01/02/2010 at 3:59 pm

    • Hi, Michael — thank you very much for your comments on this and your kind words. I’m very glad you agree. The ‘nom de plume’ history is interesting and not something I’ve come across before. I guess ‘pen name’ would do just as well as ‘pseudonym’? I agree about ‘schadenfreude’ and another similar one is ‘zeitgeist’ — I’m not sure there is a concise English equivalent? Thanks again.


      01/02/2010 at 4:16 pm

  2. I guess a related concern is one’s audience: a roomful of academics would get “zeitgeist”; another audience might be befuddled.

    Of course, a lot of folks pepper their speech with foreign words mostly to show off their erudition. Not needed or wanted.

    Michael Farrell

    01/02/2010 at 4:22 pm

    • Absolutely — thinking about your audience is so important. And showing off is not.


      01/02/2010 at 4:29 pm

      • Schadenfreude – the word, not the feeling – featured in an episode of Two and a half Men not too long ago. Sadly, neither writers nor cast had felt inclined to check the pronunciation.

        Pity really, because the terminal “e” is not, as they all apparently thought, mute. (It does not, for example, rhyme with Freud.)


        31/10/2010 at 3:38 pm

        • Hi, Ron — yes, I’m no expert, but I always thought it was pronounced as you describe. It’s an interesting word, being one for which it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a suitable English equivalent. I recently found a list of similar words and am now going to try to track it down again. Watch this space!


          31/10/2010 at 3:50 pm

          • In the Latin list,I was surprised to see Tabula rasa absent. And Carpe cerevisi. 😉


            31/10/2010 at 4:12 pm

            • Yes, it’s not a comprehensive list — tabula rasa should probably be there. Carpe cerevisi? Something beer-related?


              31/10/2010 at 4:19 pm

              • Seize the beer! There are several versions, none actually decent Latin.


                31/10/2010 at 5:43 pm

          • …I found the list but the page seems to be very buggy (I had to restart my computer) so won’t inflict it on you. However, I did find this very interesting discussion in the Grauniad about English words that have no equivalent in other languages.


            31/10/2010 at 4:15 pm

  3. Hmm… I spotted this:-

    “May I turn the question around? In my native language (Frisian – spoken in the north of the Netherlands) we of course have a word for pouring a liquid into a container, but in addition we have a word for ‘pouring’ a dry substance like sugar or flower into any container – this word is RUGELJE. Does English or any other language also have such a word? ”

    As far as I’m aware, “pouring” applies equally to liquids, powders and grains – anything that will flow can be poured.


    31/10/2010 at 5:53 pm

    • Hi, Ron — yes, I agree. But it’s interesting that the Frisian language differentiates in that way.


      31/10/2010 at 6:18 pm

  4. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    Usage for pedants:Strange though this admission may seem to readers of this column, it is possible for pedantry to over-reach itself. A colleague has pointed out to me the following sentence, from a news story on Monday: “It is therefore a fair bet that the Russian plutocrat and his girlfriend … will not be in residence … when the doors are opened to the hoi polloi on the neighbouring property.”

    Hoi polloi is Greek. It means “the many” or “the common people”. Some argue that you should never put “the” before “hoi polloi”, because to do so is to write, in effect, “the the many”.

    However, there is such a thing as usage. If “the hoi polloi” is wrong, it has been wrong since at least 1882, when W S Gilbert wrote in Iolanthe: “‘Twould fill with joy/ And madness stark/ The hoi polloi/ (A Greek remark).”

    I am reminded of the colleague on another newspaper who always used to strike out references to “the French TGV high-speed train”. He argued that TGV stands for train à grande vitesse, which means “high-speed train”; so if you write “TGV high-speed train”, you are actually saying “High-Speed Train high-speed train”. The logic is impeccable, but logic can lead you beyond the bounds of common sense.

    By the same logic, you should never write “PIN number” or “HIV virus”. But people do – just as they say “the hoi polloi”. Even in the realm of linguistic correctitude there are more important issues than the concealed tautologies that creep into usage under the cover of acronyms or translations. Not many English-speakers know, for instance that sahara is Arabic for “desert”. So “the Sahara desert” is, by the same logic, “wrong”.


    28/03/2011 at 10:54 am

  5. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    The introductory blurb to a fashion feature published on Monday began like this: “A triumvirate of designers shone in Paris last week – and these ladies all had very different ideas.” I know this is pure pedantry, and Latin pedantry at that, but you really can’t have a triumvirate of women (or even “ladies“).

    Vir means man. Man, that is, as opposed to woman. Man in the sense of human being is homo. From vir. English derives the words “virile” and “virility”. A triumvirate is a group of three men. In Rome in the first century BC there were a First Triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus and a Second Triumvirate of Antony, Octavian and Lepidus. All chaps, you see, so the equivalent word for women does not exist. Perhaps we should coin one: who’s for “triumfeminate”?

    In the meantime, you may have a trio, a triad or even a trinity of women, but not a triumvirate – it just looks absurd.


    07/11/2011 at 2:20 pm

  6. More from Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    A news story on Monday said: “In his annual letter to his shareholders, the world’s most famous investor has offered a series of colourful mea culpae.” Nice try, but no cigar. The plural of “mea culpa” is “meae culpae” – in the nominative case. In the original liturgical context, however, the words are in the ablative – “through my fault” – and the plural would be “meis culpis”. Correct Latin makes incomprehensible English. The only way out of the mess is to treat “mea culpa” as an English expression – which it has become – and give it an English plural: “mea culpas”.


    05/03/2012 at 8:04 pm

  7. I don’t know what ‘ibid’ literally means in Latin, but in practice it means ‘see previous entry’, not ‘see next entry’, as stated above.


    12/08/2013 at 11:43 pm

    • Thank you! You are absolutely right. The ‘next entry’ to see should have been ‘ibidem’ – goodness knows how long that’s been missing here. Thanks so much for spotting it. I’m about to add the entry. 🙂


      13/08/2013 at 7:13 am

  8. Also, might I suggest you amend the meaning of ‘intelligenti pauca’ to ‘a word to the wise is sufficient’? To my mind, ‘a word to the wise’ nowadays commonly means ‘here’s some good advice’, and is therefore an innaccurate English version of the Latin term, which means ‘few words suffice for he who understands’.


    13/08/2013 at 12:05 am

    • Many thanks for this interesting comment. You are correct. The phrase literally means ‘to the intelligent, a few words’. Also expressed as ‘verbum sapienti’, meaning ‘a word is enough for a wise man’ (thank you, Eugene Ehrlich of Nil Desperandum fame). The implication being that even a ton of words will go over the head of someone less wise!

      Your comments and corrections are much appreciated. 🙂


      13/08/2013 at 7:16 am

      • Thank you for taking into account my comments. I wouldn’t have bothered ‘correcting’ you if I hadn’t found the rest of the piece so interesting and accurate. 🙂 I’m also a great fan of Guy Keleny’s sensible and unfussy approach to English; when I lived in London during the ’00s I was a daily reader of The Independent, and his column was one of my favourites. Incidentally, do you have an opinion on how we should refer to the first decade of the 2000s in speech? I’m quite partial to the ‘Naughties’ which I used to hear bandied around on occasion, but it doesn’t seem to have acquired mainstream acceptance…


        14/08/2013 at 5:18 pm

        • I’m grateful you took the time to comment so I could put things right!

          Yes, I really like Guy Keleny. Isn’t it strange that the first decade of the century refused so stubbornly to be named? I don’t think any of the names suggested really took off and I never settled on a preference. As this New Yorker article said: …the decade just gone by remains unnamed and unclaimed, an orphaned era that no one quite wants to own, or own up to…


          14/08/2013 at 5:52 pm

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: