Wordwatch Towers

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

Cui bono?

with 11 comments

Calligraphy in a Latin Bible of AD 1407 on dis...
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While reading a fairly long newspaper article recently, I suddenly stumbled over this: Cui bono?

Cui what?

By the time I’d found a 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 piece and went off to make a cup of tea instead.

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.

Here’s another example:

Casus belli  means ‘justification for war’. This example of its use is from another 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.


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?

The longer version of this post includes more definitions of commonly used foreign words and phrases.


11 Responses

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  1. Except when, as Fake AP Stylebook says, they add a little je ne sais quoi to your writing.

    Michael Farrell

    22/03/2010 at 2:15 pm

  2. Woo, thanks for the puff for my blog! I’ll watch yours with interest.

    Wonder how many of your readers realise that they use Latin every time they say “eg” (exempli gratia – for example) or “ie” (id est – that is) or “NB” (nota bene – note well)?



    22/03/2010 at 8:34 pm

    • Hi — you’re welcome! I didn’t want anyone to go away with the impression that Latin is a ‘Bad Thing’, and your post on the topic is so interesting. I hope many more people discover your blog, not only for the posts on words and language, but also the beautifully written pieces on other topics — not to mention the photographs! It is a gem of a blog.


      22/03/2010 at 9:01 pm

  3. Greetings meus bonus quod fidelis amicus!!!!

    I remember the Latin books we worked from (with Marcus et Sextus et Flavia): Ecce Romani. Check it out, good for beginners. I also bumped into my Latin teacher of many years ago who revealed that she used to have nightmares where she failed to translate Ovid in time for our summer examinations. if only that had come true …

    Lizi B

    23/03/2010 at 12:43 pm

    • Hi, Lizi — you’re very lucky to have been taught Latin at school; I envy you. Thanks for the book suggestion.


      23/03/2010 at 1:00 pm

  4. I dunna see nothin wrong with ‘casus belli’ and ‘cui bono?’. If it’s a bit of a self-conscious pseuds’ corner thing, so what? It’s damn sight better than prats like Blair throwing in yoofspeak to try and sound “cool” – yeah, as cool as a furnace. If some people can’t stomach ‘casus belli’, that’s their problem. And even people’s dogs understand ‘Cui bono?’ very well indeed, and show it with their tails.


    28/03/2010 at 10:12 pm

    • I read this early in the morning and it still made me laugh even in pre-tea mode, so thank you for that good start to the week, Dai!

      I agree, Latin over yoofspeak any day. I still think, though, that a journalist, for example, whose job is to communicate, should be very wary of using foreign words and phrases when their readers might not understand them. Interestingly, in his book, Mount explains that ‘cui bono’ is probably more subtle than its simple translation ‘who benefits?’; he says it ‘encapsulates the idea of some hidden, often underhand, benefit that you have to do a bit of detective work to discover’. However, in relation to ‘cui bono’, Mount does make reference to writers who use “Latin that a lot of readers won’t get, in order to show off and say, ‘I know what this means and you don’t, naa-naa-ner-naa-naa‘”


      29/03/2010 at 6:56 am

  5. Hi Deborah,

    This example I stumbled upon in the Daily Mail (!) is not Latin, but does fit in the category of foreign words thrown into English, to show the reader how urbane the author is:

    “She is précising here the irrational rants of Gazza.”

    I have never seen the French verb ‘préciser’ anglicized like this and to my ear it sounds dumb, not to mention unbearably pretentious. Have you ever seen this?

    Jo-Anne Moore

    01/05/2010 at 8:18 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — I found the piece in the Mail where it was used:

      ‘Well, I’m not rude to anybody but it was easier not to speak because then I wasn’t talking to the wrong person, I wasn’t laughing in the wrong place.’ She is précising here the irrational rants of Gazza.

      ‘Préciser’ means something along the lines of ‘to state exactly/be precise’. I could be wrong, but I think the writer here is using the word ‘précis’ (cited with the accent in the Collins Dictionary of English, and without in the Oxford Dictionary of English). ‘Précis’ means a summary or extract. The verb forms include the strange-looking word ‘précising’ (silent ‘s’).

      It’s possible that the writer is is being exceptionally pretentious, but I think it may be an unfair accusation in this case!

      Thanks for raising that, Jo-Anne. Very interesting.


      02/05/2010 at 8:52 am

      • Well, that is interesting – thank you!

        I live in an officially bilingual province (French and English). On a regular basis I see words and expressions from English being woven, often clumsily, into French. An example that grates on my ear is the adaptation of the English term “to burn out.” Francophones around here use it as a noun. They say: “Elle a eu un burn-out.”

        However, in the example I gave you I concede that perhaps my outraged spluttering was a little premature. Although it does feel good to splutter occasionally 🙂

        Thanks again.

        Jo-Anne Moore

        02/05/2010 at 12:42 pm

        • You’re welcome! I agree about the benefits of occasional spluttering.


          02/05/2010 at 12:46 pm

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