Author Topic: Travails with learning just a smattering of Latin  (Read 19998 times)

Joe Carillo

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Travails with learning just a smattering of Latin
« on: July 30, 2020, 12:53:08 PM »
To provide a breather from the grammar discussions in this online English Forum, it maintains a discussion board that features humor about English and language in general.

Early last month, it did a retrospective of a 2010 posting of 25 Latin expressions from Henry Beard’s 1990 book Latin for All Occasions. Among them are these four engagingly provocative expressions: “In vino, veritas” (In wine, truth), “Quid quid latine dictum sit altum viditar” (That which is spoken in Latin appears profound), “Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt” (When catapults are outlawed, only outlaws will have catapults), and “Nihil curo de ista tua stulta superstition” (I’m not interested in your dopey religious cult).

I hardly know Latin, but I understand that Henry Beard, an American humorist who studied Latin for eight years at Harvard University, had provided mostly literal Latin equivalents of the modern English phrases presented in his book.  

At any rate I observed that when delivered with finesse, the expressions—I entitled them “Handy Latin Phrases for Outsmarting or Annoying Snotty Associates—can make the speaker sound scholarly, but anyone who foists them on just anybody without restraint should be prepared to receive icy stares or create enemies for life.

Little did I expect that five days later, that humor posting would draw this sober and  insightful response from a Baguio City-based medical doctor—his Forum name is Tonybau—about his travails in getting by with just a forgettable smattering of Latin to pass his pre-Med course and later his studies in medical school proper.


His experience struck me as typical of how our predominant religion and educational system have forced not a few of us to grapple with the use of foreign languages parrot-like, with hardly any training and competence in understanding them. Maybe this is something that our educators should look into and address forcefully.

Here’s Tonybau’s posting:

Hi, Joe,

Decades ago, Latin was still part of the B.S. Pre-Med curriculum in Silliman University. I don’t recall anyone of us students letting on that this was a useless subject. We managed to breeze through it and we were all too glad when the requirements were done with.

In our first year of medical school, anatomy books and atlases, unfortunately, were chock-full of Latin names for various human organs. Groan! The worst part was we had to memorize all of those names because they were often given during examinations. Again, we breezed through this stage, happy to have passed Anatomy.

After medical school, the only Latin that existed was the extremely rare Catholic Mass which I’m sure the faithful never understood, at least in the country. Perhaps the clergy did.

And now, your not-so-handy Latin phrases that I actually tried to say out loud. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand any of them anymore and got my tongue twisted, almost bitten. But thanks for the trip down memory lane.

I wouldn’t dare use any of them, though. :-)

My reply to Tonybau:

In my case, Tonybau, I never got beyond memorizing “Ora pro nobis” and just dutifully reciting it with my grandfather at Vespers when I was a pre-Grade I kid—and to be honest about it, without really understanding what it all meant. In fact, it’s only now that I found time to check with Google and found out that “Ora pro nobis”  is Latin for “Pray for us.”

Such was the shallowness of my understanding of Latin, and am I grateful that unlike you, I got by with not even a smattering of it! (As they say in French, “C’est la vie!”, and I’m saying that with the very little French I know because I have no idea whatsoever how to say it profoundly enough in Latin!)

(Next week: Pitfalls in constructing negative ‘used to’ sentences)

This essay, 2,005th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the July 30, 2020 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2020 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay online in The Manila Times:
“Travails with learning just a smattering of Latin”
« Last Edit: July 30, 2020, 03:21:16 PM by Joe Carillo »

Gerry T. Galacio

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Should Latin still be used in legal writing or in medicine?
« Reply #1 on: August 13, 2020, 02:51:13 PM »
A. From "Law Words" (Centre for Plain Legal  Language, University of Sidney, 1995):

Why do lawyers use Latin?

Lawyers use Latin terms because they are a convenient shorthand. Some Latin terms have been given judicial or statutory meanings and have become "terms of art". Some lawyers argue that Latin is more precise than English.

Lawyers also use Latin out of habit. Their use of Latin shows how the language of the law has remained static, while the English language has moved on.

B. The following persons and resources argue against the continued use of Latin in legal writing:

1. Michèle M Asprey (University of Sydney; author of "Plain Language for Lawyers"):  "Save Latin for your clients who are Ancient Romans."

2. US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says that she hates legal Latin. (Scribes Journal interview with Bryan Garner)

3. People, even those with Juris Doctor, master’s and doctoral degrees, are bothered or annoyed by the use of complicated terms or Latin words. (“The Public Speaks: An Empirical Study of Legal Communication”, page 14, by Christopher R. Trudeau Associate Professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School)

Trudeau says: “Zero respondents with a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree were impressed by such terms, and these are the people who are more likely to understand these terms. Based on these results, there is simply no reason to use complicated terms or Latin words. At best, you’ll impress a half percent of the people, but at worst, you will annoy around forty percent of them.”

4. “Two US court decisions found ‘res ipsa loquitor’ unduly confusing and urged lawyers to find a plain English way to explain the concept.” (Judith T. Fischer, Montana Law Review 2007, page 143).

6. New York City Judge Gerald Lebovits says: “Many who enjoy legalisms also enjoy Latin. They might better enjoy being understood. As the line from high school goes, ‘Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be. First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.’” (“On Terra Firma with English”, New York State Bar Journal September 2001)

7. Richard Wydick (Prof. Emeritus, UC Davis) in his book "Plain English for Lawyers": “Too often lawyers use Latin . . . phrases needlessly. Sometimes they do it out of habit or haste; the old phrase is the one they learned in law school, and they have never taken the time to question its use. Other times they do it believing mistakenly that the old phrase’s meaning cannot be expressed in ordinary English, or that the old phrase is somehow more precise than ordinary English.”

8. From "Law Words" (Centre for Plain Legal  Language, University of Sidney. 1995):

"Law Latin" is not precise because words are added changed or dropped. For example, in the early 1800's res gestae ("things done") statements were ones that could be used as evidence because they formed part of a disputed transaction, despite the hearsay rule. Lawyers then began to use res gestae carelessly to label any statements that they thought should be used as evidence despite a hearsay objection. Wigmore said, the phrase 'res gestae' has long been not only entirely useless, but even positively harmful. It is harmful, because by its ambiguity it invites the confusion of one rule with another and thus creates uncertainty as to the limitations of both".

Latin is not always logical. The prefix "in" means "not" in most, but not all, cases. Modern English words based on Latin ones demonstrate this confusion. "Incorporeal" means "without a body". However, when a company is "incorporated" it is given a body.

C. Latin should no longer be used by doctors.

1. "Rx for British Doctors: Use Plain English Instead of Latin" (The New York Times) at

2. "We should stop using incorrect Latin to describe parity and use plain English instead" by Philip J Steer (BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Volume 125, Issue 9)
« Last Edit: August 13, 2020, 03:03:49 PM by Gerry T. Galacio »