Sunday, 22 November 2009

Latin Quips and Quotes

LATIN was the native language of the people living along the Tiber River in Italy. When they built Rome and went on to conquer vast tracts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Latin became the lingua franca or common language that united the various people within the Empire.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin remained the language that united European scholars well into the 19th century. As a result, modern English is still rich in ancient Latin phrases.

In celebration we take a look at the meaning of some of the most popular expressions.

Et tu, Brute?

Tradition has it that this line was spoken by Julius Caesar as he lay dying.

Caesar became sole ruler of the Roman Empire after starting a civil war in 49 BC. On the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 BC a group of senators ambushed Caesar and stabbed him to death.

Tradition has it these rebels were led by Marcus Junius Brutus. And as Caesar had been having a long-running affair with Brutus’s mum Servilia Caepionis, many thought Brutus was Ceasar’s illegitimate child.

Shakespeare used the line in his 1599 tragedy and it has since then become a classic reproof in betrayal scenes.

Example: The beleaguered Prime Minister could only gasp, “et tu Brute?” as his deputy supported a motion of no confidence.

Veni vidi vici

I came, I saw, I conquered. A famous boast by Julius Caesar made in 47 BC in a letter to the Senate describing how the Roman army had just annihilated the king of Pontus and his forces.

As Caesar had just become dictator of the Roman Empire, and the kings of Pontus had beaten the Romans in many past battles, Ceasar’s boast must have been incredibly annoying as well as frightening to the Senators.

Modern comedians love playing with this phrase, notably in the film Ghostbusters, “We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!” but the original phrase often crops up in sports reports written by correspondents who describe games in terms of warfare.

Example: Our football team took a veni vidi vici approach and crushed the opposition with a score of 6 to 0!

Pro bono

To work without charging a fee. In the past this phrase was longer: pro bono publico meaning for the public good.

In the early days of the Roman Empire lawyers were aristocrats who worked for nothing. But in later years lawyers accepted fees in the way of artworks or other valuables. This inspired the phrase quid pro quo meaning a deal whereby you arrange an exchange or barter goods or services.

Because many Bar Associations insist their members do a certain amount of pro bono or free work for people who would otherwise not be able to afford legal fees every year, the expression is commonly used in the legal profession. However, anyone doing work for free can use it.

Example: Angela is doing some pro bono English teaching in her local orphanage.

Ad hoc

Something that is improvised or made up on the spot. Also something that is created for a particular situation.

Anyone who is stuck in a difficult situation that requires an instant response will take an ad hoc decision. However, as these measures are decided in a hurry and without consideration for the effects they may have on other situations, ad hoc decisions may later lead to lots of trouble.

Example: The practice of announcing cost reduction schemes on an ad hoc basis in monthly budget meetings must stop.

Nil desperandum

A literal translation is never despair. The great Latin poet Horace used this expression in his works around 23BC and it has remained a popular slogan ever since.

This exhortation became popular in Britain in the 17th century and is still popular, especially with sports captains and business managers who are trying to cheer up their teams in bad times.

Example: Our shares have dipped by 20 sen today but nil desperandum chaps, we’ll do better tomorrow!

Nil nisi bonum

This is the short version of various longer Latin proverbs that all translate loosely as don’t speak ill of the dead.

Although the Latin version is becoming less popular now that so many schools have given up teaching Classics, movie buffs will remember it as the opening line from Lawrence of Arabia where a clergyman looking at Lawrence’s grave in St Paul’s Cathedral asks, “Well, nil nisi bonum, but does he really deserve a place in here?”

A related expression that mothers and editors like to use is if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

Example: Andrew was a difficult man to get along with but nil nisi bonum. We will miss him.


Friday November 13, 2009

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