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Famous Latin phrases

Updated on January 27, 2014

Latin phrases everyone should know

Latin may be a dead language, but some Latin phrases are immortal. Famous Latin quotes pop up again and again in movies and books and who knows, you might even come across one in a general conversation with a classically-minded friend.

While today you probably don't need to be able to read Seneca in original, it is a good idea to know a handful of basic Latin phrases, at least the most famous ones. Knowing who, when and why said them is a welcome bonus.

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Everyday Latin Phrases

nunc est bibendum
nunc est bibendum

Latin maxims for all occasions

Let's start with a random collection of well known Latin phrases that could be used in everyday circumstances (and, accidentally, do not exactly fit into categories I have chosen for this page):

De gustibus non est disputandum - a phrase useful to anyone facing criticism, meaning concerning tastes, there should be no discussion

Carpe diem - I hesitated to include this phrase at all, because it is such a popular one. You probably already know that it means seize the day (as in enjoy yourself now because you don't know what the future will bring), but were you aware that it is actually a quote from Horace's poetry?

Nolens volens - willy-nilly. Sounds fabulous in both languages.

Persona non grata - means someone not welcome, an intruder. In plural personae non gratae.

Nec Hercules contra plures - meaning: even Hercules can't prevail against numerous foes. Sometimes shortened simply to Nec Hercules... - those who recognise the saying know how it goes from here (or sapienti sat - the wise need no more).

Nunc est bibendum - my personal favourite in student times, meaning Now it's time to drink. Who would've thought that Horace was such a boozer?

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Want to learn more Latin than just famous phrases? - Here are some books to get you started:

Legal Latin Phrases

dura lex sed lex
dura lex sed lex

Latin in legal lingo

Hopefully you won't ever need to get too familiar with court environment, but these phrases are handy when you want to impress your lawyer friends:

Lex retro non agit - means law isn't retroactive or you can't be prosecuted for doing something which was legal at the time, even if it was declared illegal afterwards

Nullum crimen sine lege - similar to the above, meaning no crime without law. An activity is not criminal if it has not been declared as such by the law.

Volenti non fit iniuria - to a willing person, injury is not done. In other words, if you volunteered, you can't complain.

Ignorantia iuris nocet - Ignorance of the law can hurt you. So true. Unfortunately.

Dura lex, sed lex - harsh law is still a law. Rules may be cruel, but even so they shouldn't be broken.

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Latin for lawyers - If you need more than a handful of phrases

Inspiring/Cheesy Latin Phrases

per aspera ad astra
per aspera ad astra

Uplifting Latin maxims

I call them cheesy, but most people find these phrases inspiring - that's why they choose to engrave them on wedding rings or print them on get well cards. Oh well - De gustibus non est disputandum...

Amor vincit omnia - meaning Love conquers all. 100% true in Hollywood, in real life also true if you disregard war, illness, violence, poverty, boredom, betrayal, natural disasters etc. etc. A white lie invented by Virgil.

Per aspera ad astra - through hardships to the stars. One would do well to be wary of those using the phrase too much - too often it is them who cause the aspera so logically, they really want you to believe in the astra.

Nil desperandum! - Do not despair! or Nothing to worry about. Wonderfully transformed by Terry Pratchett into Nullus anxietas, which is dog Latin for No worries. As far as I can tell, in proper Latin it would be Nullae anxietates, but hey - licentia poetica (artistic license), ok?

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Where to find more inspiring Latin phrases?

Caesar's most famous phrases

veni vidi vici
veni vidi vici

Ave Caesar and other phrases

Apart from being a supreme military commander and a skillful politician, Julius Caesar also had talent for witticisms, as Veni, vidi vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) certifies. Caesar wrote those words to a friend after the battle at Zela (today in Turkey) where he defeated Pharnaces II of Pontus.

Alea iacta est - the die has been cast, also a wartime utterance. According to Suetonius, Caesar spoke the immortal words after he crossed the river Rubicon, on his way to start a civil war in Rome. Once the river was behind him, there was no turning back, only victory or death. This is more or less how we use the phrase today - the decisive move has been made, now we have to follow through with the consequences.

Ave Caesar, morituri the salutant - a rather morbid greeting, favoured by Caesar's soldiers, meaning Hail, Caesar, those who are about to die salute you. I, on the other hand, salute sir Terry Pratchett (once again! There are lots of twisted Latin phrases in Pratchett's books) for transforming the sentence into Morituri nolumus mori, which means those who are about to die... don't want to.

By the way, if someone tries to impress you with their knowledge of Latin by quoting Caesar's Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (The whole of Gaul is divided into three parts), don't be too impressed. It sounds fancy, but the passage is really easy to translate and in most Latin textbooks you can find it around lesson four.

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Learn more about Julius Caesar

Health-related Latin phrases

primum non nocere
primum non nocere

Latin phrases for doctors and patients

Let's start with something easy: Primum non nocere. It means First, don't harm and it is the rule by which all medical professionals abide (at least I really, really hope so). You can treat the patient only when you're 100% sure that your treatment won't hurt him.

Medice, cura the ipsum - translates to Physician, heal yourself. The phrase originated from the Bible, but today it means Deal with your own problems before you start fixing someone else's.

Mens sana in corpore sano - Healthy mind in healthy body. First mentioned by Juvenal as something to hope for in life. One can only agree.

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Medical Latin - phrases, terminology and more

Religious Latin phrases

fiat lux
fiat lux

Famous biblical Latin phrases

If you follow the Bible, you probably believe that in the beginning, God said Fiat lux (Let there be light) and presto, there was light (Genesis 1:3). Alternatively (or additionally? I'm not sure how the doctrine goes here) you could believe that In principio erat verbum or that in the beginning was the word (John 1:1)

Pater Noster (Our Father) and Ave Maria (Hail Mary) are the most popular Christian prayers and making the sign of the cross is accompanied by the words In nomine patris, et filii et spiritus sancti (In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost).

By the way, did you know that Lucifer translates directly as light bearer?

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Become an expert in ecclesiastical Latin

Political Latin phrases

si vis pacem, para bellum
si vis pacem, para bellum

Latin in political science and government theory

Since times immemorial, empires ruled the world by the divide et impera principle. Meaning divide and rule, it can be explained as set factions against each other so that they don't unite against you and is as valid today as it ever was.

Shrewd politicians make sure that their voters are given panem et circenses so that they could govern in peace. In ancient Rome this phrase translated as bread and games (as in Olympic games). Today it should probably be read as food and fun, but with this little correction the theory still holds.

If you want peace, you should prepare for war - Si vis pacem, para bellum - here's a saying with the ancient Roman pedigree. Personally I believe that it's the greatest, most damaging BS ever invented. Your opponent may treat your preparations as casus belli (reason for war) and then what?

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Latin phrases and social phenomena

pecunia non olet
pecunia non olet

Latin maxims about society

In theory, we live in times of equality. Yet, some people are still best described as primus inter pares (first among equals). In ancient Rome, the title was purely decorative - it belonged to emperors with absolute power, who didn't want to be seen as dictators (which, in reality, they were). So much about the equality.

Whether you are primus (first) or ultimus (last) in today's social order depends largely on the amount of pecunia (money) you have. You could say pecunia non olet (money doesn't stink) and this is exactly what emperor Vespasian said when he imposed urine tax on his citizens. You could also say O tempora o mores! (Oh, what times, what customs!) as Cicero did when faced with corruption of his society.

Since money has always equaled power equaled inequality it is probably best to shrug and mutter nihil novi sub sole - nothing new under the sun.

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How many of my famous Latin phrases did you recognise?

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Can you suggest any famous Latin phrases that I've missed?

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    • Tiggered profile image
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      Tiggered 4 years ago

      @anonymous: An excellent list, thank you for your input.

      I decoded what I could :)

      Facta, non verba - Deeds, not words

      Nihilo nihil fit - Nothing comes from nothing

      Verba volant, scripta manent - Spoken words fly away, written ones remain

      Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am

      Scio me nihil scire - I know that I know nothing

      Condemnant quod non intellegunt - They condemn because they don't understand

      Si vis amari, ama - If you wish to be loved, love

      Et tu, Brutus? - Even you, Brutus?

      Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini - Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord

      Fiat lux - see above

      Quod Caesaris Caesari - Give that which is Ceasar's to Ceasar

      Consummatum est - It is completed

      Non veni vocare iustos sed peccatores ad poenitentiam - I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance

      Non egent qui sani sunt medico sed qui male habent - It's the sick, not the healthy, who need a medic

      Lucerna corporis tui est oculus tuus - Your eye is the light of your body

      Optaverit mihi, optaverit tui - I'm sorry to confess that I couldn't track down the original quote. Is it something along the lines of Hodie mihi, cras tibi (Today it's me, tomorrow it'll be you)?

      Et deprehendi nihil esse melius quam laetari hominem in opere suo et hanc esse partem illius - So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot

      Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas - Vanity of vanities, all is vanity (i.e. meaningless)

      Homo homini lupus est - Man is a wolf to another man

      Mulier quid ploras - Why do you cry, woman?

      Beatius est magis dare quam accipere - There's more joy in giving than in receiving

      Ubi est, mors, victoria tua? Ubi est, mors, stimulus tuus? - Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting?

      Qui de terra est de terra loquitur - He that is of the earth speaks of the earth

      Post vitam in haec Terra ubi ero et ubi est? - I gave up on this one, sorry

      Historia magistra vitae est - history is a teacher of life

      Vita incerta, mors certissima - life is not certain, death is most certain

      O Tempora, o mores! - see above

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Facta, non verba

      Nihilo nihil fit

      Verba volante, scripta manente

      Cogito ego sum

      Scio nihil scire

      Comdemamt quod non intelecunto

      Si amares, ama

      Et tu Brutus?

      Benedictus qui veni in nomine Domine

      Fiat lux

      Cesar quod cesar

      Consumatum est

      Non vine vocare iustus. Sed peccatoris in paenitentiam.

      Non egent qui sane sunt medico. Sed qui males habent.

      Lucerna corporis tui est oculus tuus.

      Optaverit mihi, optaverit tui.

      Et deprehendi nihil esse mellius quam laetari hominem in opero suo. Et hanc, esse partem illius.

      Vanitas vanitataum et omnia vanitas.

      Homo hominem lupus est.

      Mulier qui ploras?

      Magister est dare quam accipere.

      Oh mors, ubi es victoria tua? Oh mors ubi es stimulus tuus?

      Quid est de Terra de Terram est.

      Post vitam in haec Terra ubi ero et ubi est?

      Vitae magister est.

      Vita incerta. Mors certissima.

      Oh Tempora, oh mores.