Latin may be a “dead” language, but Latin phrases are still used all the time in modern English. How many of these common expressions do you know?
We all use Latin phrases even if we don’t realize it. I guarantee you have said “et cetera” or “vice versa” at least once in your life. And have you ever turned in a curriculum vitae (or C.V.) when applying for a job?
Some Latin expressions slip into English unobtrusively, while others – like mutatis mutandis and cum laude – look a little more foreign. In this post, I will introduce you to over forty Latin phrases that you really should know.
If you don’t, no shame. It’s a chance to learn something new!
Common Latin Phrases Used in English
Are you ready? Here come over 40 awesome Latin phrases that appear in English on a regular basis! You don’t need to know any Latin in order to follow along, because I explain both the literal and the idiomatic meaning.
But here’s a quick note for anyone who is learning Latin: since I am focusing on the use of the phrases in English, I have not included macrons in the spelling of the Latin words.
A priori & a posteriori
Literal meaning: “from (what comes) first” and “from (what comes) after”
The expressions a priori and a posteriori are primarily used in philosophical or logical contexts. An a priori argument is based on self-evident principles and thus on “what comes first.” A priori arguments move from causes to effects.
An a posteriori argument, on the other hand, is constructed based on reviewing the evidence – that is, “what comes after”. A posteriori arguments move in the opposite direction, from effects or data to causes.
Literal meaning: “to this”
Ad hoc in English means “created for this specific purpose” or “impromptu”. So, if there is a flood in a school, the principal may call an ad hoc meeting to discuss how to respond.
We often hear about decisions made ad hoc, as well. An ad hoc decision is one that is made for the context at hand. You aren’t thinking about the broader significance, but rather of the specific application.
Literal meaning: “to the man”
The most common usage of ad hominem today is to talk about an ad hominem argument. This is an argument that relates “to the man”, i.e. to the person you are arguing with. Instead of addressing the real topic of the debate or the person’s reasoning, you attack their character.
Thus ad hominem arguments are usually irrelevant or illogical. For instance, if you are debating ethics with your friend and you can’t refute their point, you might yell, “You don’t know anything about ethics! You cheated on your final exam in physics!”
Literal meaning: “to infinity”
If something continues ad infinitum, this means that it goes on forever, without end. If Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story spoke Latin, he would say, “Ad infīnītum et ultrā!” (To infinity and beyond!)
Literal meaning: “to nausea, to vomiting”
If you do something ad nauseam, this means that you do it to a nauseating degree. For example: “We have discussed your ingrown toenails ad nauseam. Let’s change the subject!”
Literal meaning: “elsewhere”
Alibī is a Latin adverb meaning ”elsewhere”. This makes sense since in modern English, an alibi is evidence that can prove that you were elsewhere when a crime was committed.
”I can’t have stolen the diamond necklace, because I was somewhere else – I was at school during the robbery and my teacher will tell you so!”
Literal meaning: “nurturing mother”
The Latin adjective alma means “nurturing” and often described fertility goddesses in ancient Rome. In the 1700s, people started referring to their university as their alma mater. It makes sense – your university is the mother who nourishes your intellectual growth!
Literal meaning: “another I”
The expression alter ego is used so frequently in English that people often don’t realize it is Latin. In fact, alter ego originally referred to a trusted friend. Aristotle, Cicero, and other ancient authors insist that a true friend is so close that they are another self.
Over time alter ego came to have an expanded meaning. Now an alter ego can refer to a person’s hidden identity, to a fictional character who is a double of the author, and more. Clark Kent and Superman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – the list goes on.
Anno Domini (A.D.)
Literal meaning: “in the year of the Lord”
In the modern world we divide time into two eras: an old era before the year of Jesus Christ’s birth (traditionally year 0) and a new era after. Traditionally, all the years after 0 were accompanied by the abbreviation A.D.
So we are currently in 2022 A.D. That is, we are in the 2022nd year since the birth of the Lord.
These days we often hear C.E. or Common Era instead of A.D. and anno Domini. But it is still good to know where the system came from!
Literal meaning: ”before the war”
Today we most frequently see ante bellum written as one word, ”antebellum”, and used as an adjective. In the United States, you may hear about the Antebellum South – i.e., the American South before the Civil War.
The opposite of antebellum is postbellum or ”postwar”.
Ante meridiem (A.M.) & post meridiem (P.M.)
Literal meaning: “before noon” and “after noon”
A.M. and its opposite P.M. are everywhere in the modern world. Most people probably don’t realize, though, that these abbreviations are short for ante meridiem and post meridiem. These Latin phrases mean literally ”before noon” and ”after noon”.
Literal meaning: “in good faith”
In modern English, bona fide is usually an adjective meaning “genuine” or “authentic”. A bona fide genius is someone who is, literally, a genius (not just a relatively smart person who gets called a genius).
We also hear of bona fide offers, proposals, etc. Bona fide is occasionally an adverb; for example, “The merchant acted bona fide, but he still lost the goods.”
Literal meaning: “let him beware”
A caveat is a warning or stipulation. So, for example, I could say: “I highly recommend traveling to Italy, with the caveat that it may be quite hot in the summer.”
Cum laude, magna cum laude, & summa cum laude
Literal meaning: “with honor”, “with great honor”, and “with greatest honor”
Many universities award high-achieving students with Latin honors. If you graduate with a high grade point average (G.P.A.), then you will receive a bachelor’s degree cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude.
Different universities have different scales for Latin honors. At my undergraduate institution we had the following range:
- Cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.40 and above
- Magna cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.70 and above
- Summa cum laude: G.P.A. of 3.90 and above
Literal meaning: “course of life”
Your curriculum vitae or C.V. documents your education, jobs, qualifications, and accomplishments. It is, in effect, a record of your life – so the original Latin meaning makes sense.
Literal meaning: “in fact”
De facto is used to describe a state of affairs that exists in reality, even if it is not legally sanctioned. Someone might be the de facto head of the government, even if they technically are only an advisor. Or a country might be in a de facto state of war, even if neither side is willing to recognize it.
Deus ex machina
Literal meaning: ”god from a machine”
A deus ex machina is a person or thing that appears suddenly in a literary work in order to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem. In ancient Greek drama, a god or goddess would often make an appearance at the end of a play in order to explain what should happen or what the characters ought to do.
In ancient Greece, the actor playing the divinity would be rolled onto the stage on a crane called a mechane. And this is what gave us the expression “god from the mechane” or “god from a machine”.
Literal meaning: ”characters of the drama”
Have you ever read a play of Shakespeare, or any play script? Then you may have encountered the phrase dramatis personae. The English equivalent is ”cast of characters”.
The dramatis personae includes each character’s name along with a brief description of who they are.
Literal meaning: “therefore”
We have borrowed ergo straight from Latin and we use it in exactly the same way as the ancient Romans did: to mean “therefore”. Of course, saying “ergo” in English can make you sound kind of stuffy and pedantic.
Literal meaning: “and other things”
Et cetera is one of the most common Latin phrases used in English. Since it literally means “and other things”, we usually find it at the end of lists or long descriptions.
Literal meaning: “may you have the body”
A writ of habeas corpus is a court order that requires a jailer to bring a detained person before the court. Habeas corpus is meant to prevent false imprisonment; any detained person can petition for a writ of habeas corpus to be issued on their behalf.
According to Etymonline, the Latin phrase itself comes from a 14th-century law. The full law says something to the effect of “we command that you bring the body before us.”
Literal meaning: ”in memory”
This phrase is pretty self-explanatory. We dedicate books, movies, fellowships, etc. in memory of our deceased loved ones, and often we write in memoriam on the program or include it in the title.
Literal meaning: ”because of the deed itself, by the very act”
Ipso facto in English means ”inevitably” or ”necessarily”. If something is true ipso facto, then it is true by definition, without a doubt.
Literal meaning: “with things having been changed that ought to be changed”, i.e. “with the necessary changes having been made”
I debated whether or not to include mutatis mutandis in this list of common Latin phrases, because it is a little rarer. But it shows up just enough in academic and legal contexts that it deserves a mention.
Typically, we use mutatis mutandis in order to recognize that a comparison is not perfect, but still has some validity. So, for instance, I could say, “The experience of traveling in Italy is, mutatis mutandis, quite similar to that of traveling in Spain.”
Or we can use mutatis mutandis to signal that something will work well once the necessary changed have been made. For example: “I think that we should move forward with the new contract, mutatis mutandis.”
Literal meaning: “it does not follow”
Non sequitur is one of the most familiar Latin phrases still found in English today. Back in the 1500s, the term began to be used in logic to refer to a conclusion that did not follow from the premise.
Now the meaning has broadened. We can say any sort of statement is a non sequitur if it doesn’t relate to the rest of the conversation. Let’s say you are talking about watching a movie and your friend suddenly says, “But I really like swimming with sea turtles!” That would be a non sequitur.
Literal meaning: “note well”
Nota bene, abbreviated to N.B., appears frequently in academic articles, textbooks, etc. Authors use it to draw readers’ attention to something specifically important.
For example, if you were drafting an instruction manual to a microwave, you might write: “Nota bene: do not put anything metal in the microwave!”
Per annum & per diem
Literal meanings: “per year” and “per day”
These two Latin phrases often pop up in English in the context of hours or pay. For instance, you may earn a certain amount per annum (per year). Or percentages may increase a certain amount per diem (per day).
A per diem can also refer to the allowance that an employer gives their employees per day when traveling. In this case, per diem is a noun.
Literal meaning: “per heads”
In a modern context, per capita means “per unit of population”. We can talk about deaths per capita, jobs per capita, income per capita, etc.
Literal meaning: “through itself”
Per se is another extremely common Latin phrase. The easiest way to translate it into idiomatic English would be “in and of itself” or “intrinsically”. So, for example, I could say: “I don’t think a focus on grammar is bad per se, but it is often accompanied by old-fashioned and harmful teaching methods.”
Persona non grata
Literal meaning: “a not welcome person”
A persona non grata is one who, for whatever reason, is not welcome in a certain place. Example: ”Every since he insulted the emperor, Lucan has been persona non grata in all of the imperial circles.”
Literal meaning: “for the good”
This Latin phrase is mostly used in a legal context. Lawyers will do pro bono work – that is, they work for free, for the public good.
Quid pro quo
Literal meaning: “something for something”
A quid pro quo transaction is one in which each person contributes something in exchange for something else. Quid pro quo often receives a negative reputation: we think of bribery, underhanded deals, or even sexual harassment.
But technically any trading or exchange can be classed as quid pro quo. If I cut my neighbor’s grass and they give me apple pie in return, then that is a quid pro quo transaction!
Literal meaning: ”rest”
A requiem mass is a mass said for the souls of the dead. Requiem comes from a line in the mass for the dead: Dōnā eīs requiem ”grant them peace.”
Literal meaning: “thus”
In newspaper articles and other written contexts you will see [sic] inserted in the middle of quotes. Often people think this is an abbreviation, but nope – it’s just a Latin word meaning “thus” or “so.”
Writers use [sic] to indicate that their original source contained a grammatical error. The writer wants to represent the quote accurately, but wants readers to realize that they weren’t the one to make the mistake.
Example: “He wrote that ‘they’re [sic] song was beautiful.'” In this context, the reporter wants you to know that he – the original source – accidentally put they’re instead of the correct their. They’re was in THE ORIGINAL QUOTE, and was not a mistake that the reporter made.
Sine qua non
Literal meaning: “without which not”
A sine qua non is something that is absolutely essential. Here are a few examples:
- “Knowledge of Spanish is a sine qua non for an ambassador to Peru.”
- “Sun screen is a sine qua non on any beach vacation.”
Literal meaning: “state in which”
The status quo is the current state or condition that a person, company, country, etc. finds themselves in – in other words, the existing state of affairs. We often associate the status quo with stagnation or lack of progress, but it doesn’t have to be negative.
Literal meaning: “according to (individual) words”
If you repeat something verbatim, this means that you repeat it in exactly the same words as it was originally said. ”Verbatim” comes from the Latin verbum ”word” plus the adverbial ending –ātim.
Literal meaning: “with the position having been changed”
Vice versa is such a common expression that it doesn’t really require explanation. Basically, if something is true vice versa, then it is also true the other way around.
So, for example, I could say, “He supports me and vice versa.” This means that not only does he support me, but the reverse is also true: I support him.
Should you italicize Latin phrases used in English?
It depends! Both the Chicago Manual of Style (7.53-55) and the MLA Handbook agree that less common Latin phrases should be italicized. So, for instance, you should put mutatis mutandis in italics.
But if a word or phrase has been anglicized and is now familiar enough that it seems like a part of English, you should not italicize. That’s why you usually won’t see expressions like vice versa, et cetera, and pro bono italicized.
There is definitely an element of subjectivity here. How do you decide, for instance, if a word is “familiar” to the average English speaker? The Chicago Manual of Style says that you should look it up in Merriam-Webster’s and if it is there, you don’t italicize.
So, how many of these Latin phrases used in English did you actually know? Some of them are a bit tough, but I’m sure you recognized at least a few. Let me know how you fared in the comments!
And, while you’re here – have you ever thought about learning Latin? Here are nine reasons why you absolutely should!
If you’ve been wanting to learn Latin but just don’t know how to get started, then check out my ultimate guide to Latin-learning resources.
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Et cetera is one of the most common Latin phrases used in English. Since it literally means “and other things”, we usually find it at the end of lists or long descriptions.What is the most used Latin phrase? ›
Seize the day. Probably the most popular Latin phrase of modern times. Luckily, we have an even better one: carpe vinum. Literally 'seize the wine'.
Docendo discimus is a Latin proverb meaning "by teaching, we learn." It is perhaps derived from Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD), who says in his Letters to Lucilius (Book I, letter 7, section 8): Homines dum docent discunt., meaning "Men learn while they teach."What does quid in Luce Aeternitatis mean? ›
Latin phrase meaning "What Is It In The Light Of Eternity?"What are some badass Latin quotes? ›
- Vincit qui se vincit. He conquers who conquers himself. ...
- Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed. ...
- Non ducor, duco. I am not led, I lead. ...
- Gladiator in arena consilium capit. ...
- Aqua vitae. ...
- Sic semper tyrannis. ...
- Astra inclinant, sed non obligant. ...
- Aut cum scuto aut in scuto.
|vita, dulcedo, spes||Mary, [our] life, sweetness, [and] hope|
|vita incerta, mors certissima||life is uncertain, death is most certain|
|vita mutatur, non tollitur||life is changed, not taken away|
|vita patris||during the life of the father|
The subtitle "Parabellum" for John Wick 3 comes from the Latin phrase: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" which means "If you want peace, prepare for war." It is also an alternate name for the 9mm handgun cartridge ("9mm Parabellum").What is Morior Invictus mean? ›
morior invictus. I die unvanquished. sometimes also translated as "death before defeat"What is the Latin god motto? ›
Deus vult (Ecclesiastical Latin: 'God wills it') is a Christian motto relating to Divine providence. It was first chanted by Catholics during the First Crusade in 1096 as a rallying cry, most likely under the form Deus le veult or Deus lo vult, as reported by the Gesta Francorum (ca.How can I memorize Latin words fast? ›
Practice saying new words out loud (or writing them). Study vocabulary several times a day for 5-10 minutes at a time. When learning vocabulary, practice conjugating new verbs or declining new nouns and adjectives. Practice using new vocabulary in simple sentences so that you get used to seeing the word in context.
Memento vivere translated from Latin meaning “remember to live”.What is the Latin phrase caught in the act? ›
In flagrante delicto (Latin for "in blazing offence") or sometimes simply in flagrante ("in blazing") is a legal term used to indicate that a criminal has been caught in the act of committing an offence (compare corpus delicti). The colloquial "caught red-handed" and "caught rapid" are English equivalents.What is the Coeptis Latin phrase on the American dollar bill? ›
dollar bill, American Three Latin phrases, namely annuit cœptis “[He] has approved our undertakings,” novus ordo seclorum “a new order of the ages,” and e pluribus unum “out of many, one,” appear on the Great Seal of the United States (see Fig.What does the Latin term quid pro quo mean? ›
The Latin phrase quid pro quo means literally something for something and the English meaning is the same.What is the Latin death motto? ›
Memento mori (Latin for 'remember that you [have to] die') is an artistic or symbolic trope acting as a reminder of the inevitability of death.What does frango dura patientia mean? ›
Frango Dura Patientia - Latin phrase meaning "I Break Hard Things by Perseverance"What is the Latin motto for courage? ›
Fac Fortia Et Patere | “Do Brave Deeds and Endure”
In many ways, it's the Latin equivalent of “I can do hard things.” Life won't be easy, but we can live it with bravery, do hard things, and press forward.
Carpe vinum. This one is better for party time: “Seize the wine.”What is rare in Latin? ›
rarus : rare, uncommon / far apart / thin, scanty.What is the Latin quote never give up? ›
Non Desistas Non Exieris is Latin for never give up never surrender, the perfect motto for entrepreneurs, the boss, athletes, or someone who takes on the world.
|Pax intrantibus, salus exeuntibus||Peace to those who enter, health to those who depart.|
|pax matrum, ergo pax familiarum||peace of mothers, therefore peace of families|
|Pax Mongolica||Mongolian Peace|
|pax optima rerum||peace is the greatest good|
Dum spiro spero, which translates to "While I breathe, I hope", is a Latin phrase of indeterminate origin.What is the Latin phrase for best wishes? ›
Bonam fortunam (tibi exopto)!What does Jack say in Latin? ›
Character error. Jack recites a phrase in Vulgate Latin, "Leginum... Convictio... Scientia... Veritate," to mean basically, "Knowledge of the law, conviction of the truth." In actuality, this Latin translation is gibberish.What is the Latin phrase on John Wick's back? ›
scene is the Latin phrase "Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat", which literally translates to Fortune Favors the Strong.What is the famous line of John Wick? ›
- 1 “Yeah… ...
- 2 “It Has Been An Honor, My Friend.” ...
- 3 “Friend Means Little When It's Convenient.” ...
- 4 “Happy Hunting.” ...
- 5 “What You're So Good At Getting At John, Revenge.” ...
- 6 “The Moment You Sat Down At My Table You Already Lost.” ...
- 7 “I Think It's Time We Paint Him Red.”
in om·nia pa·ra·tus in-ˈȯm-nē-ä-pä-ˈrä-ˌtu̇s. : prepared in all things : ready for anything.
“The generally accepted English meaning of the Latin words 'Invictis Pax' is something like 'Peace to the Unconquered' or 'Peace to the Undefeated'.What is the meaning of Acta Non Verba? ›
: acts, not words : actions speak louder than words.Who is the Latin God of peace? ›
Pax (Latin for Peace), more commonly known in English as Peace, was the Roman goddess of peace derived and adopted from the ancient Greek equivalent Eirene. Pax was seen as the daughter of the Roman king god Jupiter and the goddess Justice.
Meaning and related terms
Soli Deo gloria is usually translated glory to God alone, but some translate it glory to the only God. A similar phrase is found in the Vulgate translation of the Bible: "soli Deo honor et gloria".
In ancient Roman religion, Aeternitas was the divine personification of eternity.What is the hardest Latin language to learn? ›
Romanian is widely considered to be the trickiest of the Romance languages to learn, due to the challenge that mastering its grammar poses. French and Spanish are sometimes cited as being difficult, too.What is the easiest Latin language? ›
Spanish is easier for native English-speakers to learn than many other languages thanks to its vast presence and Latin origins.What is the hardest part of learning Latin? ›
Latin Grammar Is Incredibly Hard
If there's one thing that everyone who's studied Latin could agree on, it's that the grammar rules are incredibly hard. The word “declension” is enough to send shivers down one's spine. The word order is arbitrary, each of the verbs has several cases and all the nouns have gender.
Memento mori is Latin for "Remember that you (have to) die" and it is a symbolic reminder that we all must die someday. Remember that you are mortal and live your life accordingly.What does semper vivere mean? ›
it is always beginning to live/ it always begin to live.What does et memento mori mean? ›
Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die.” The notion of “remembering death” appears throughout European history, and other cultures have traditions that approach the same concept in unique ways.What is the Latin phrase above the law? ›
Nemo est supra leges - Oxford Reference.What Latin quote says actions not words? ›
ACTA NON VERBA is often translated as "actions, not words," but as the Latin word ACTA means "register of events," we felt that "deeds" was a translation more in keeping with the spirit of the motto.
Mea culpa is one of many English terms that derive from the Latin culpa, meaning "guilt." Some other examples are culpable ("meriting condemnation or blame especially as wrong or harmful"), culprit ("one guilty of a crime or a fault"), and exculpate ("to clear from alleged fault or guilt").Why is Novus ordo seclorum on the dollar bill? ›
The motto Novus ordo seclorum was translated and added to the seal by Charles Thomson, a Latin expert who was involved in the design of the Great Seal, as "A new order of the ages." Thomson said it was to signify "the beginning of the new American Era" as of the date of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which ...What is on the back of the $5 bill? ›
The $5 note features a portrait of President Lincoln on the front of the note and a vignette of the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the note.Who is on the front of the $2 bill? ›
The first use of Thomas Jefferson's portrait on $2 notes was on Series 1869 United States Notes.What does pro mean Latin? ›
Latin pro in front of, before, for, forward — more at for. First Known Use. Noun.Is quid pro quo illegal? ›
By definition, quid pro quo is neither immoral nor illegal. However, as an essential element in bribery and extortion, QPQ often has both illegal and immoral implications.What is opposite of quid pro quo? ›
In Latin, the opposite of quid pro quo is pro bono. Pro bono, “for the good, for free,” means something is given with no expectation of return.What is a common Latin word used in English? ›
Latin roots: The Latin term carpe diem literally translates to “Pluck the day.” Carpe means “pluck” and diem is “day.” Example: I really shouldn't spend so much money on one night out, but oh well—carpe diem!
- I'm sorry: This phrase is used to express regret or remorse for something that you have done. ...
- Thank you: This phrase is used to express gratitude or appreciation. ...
- I love you: This phrase is used to express strong feelings of affection.
|et cetera; etc||and the rest; and so on; and more|
|ex gratia||from kindness or grace (without recognizing any liability or legal obligation)|
|ex libris||from the books; from the library|
|habeas corpus||a court order instructing that a person under arrest be brought before a judge|
Some examples include aberration, allusion, anachronism, democratic, dexterity, enthusiasm, imaginary, juvenile, pernicious, sophisticated. Many of these words were borrowed directly from Latin, both in its classical and medieval forms.What are 2 English words that are derived from Latin? ›
- acumen - ability to make good judgments.
- agenda - list of things to be done.
- altruism - selfless concern for others.
- ambiguous - having a double meaning.
- aplomb (Fr.) - self-confidence.
- atrocity - cruel act.
- avarice - greed.
- bibulous - excessively fond of drinking alcohol.
Although the English language as a language is not descended from Latin as the Romance languages are, about 60% of English words are of Latin origin due to borrowing.What are the 25 phrases? ›
- Give someone a hand – Help. ...
- Sharp – Exactly at a particular time. ...
- Take it easy – Relax or Slow down and similar meaning. ...
- Up to the minute – Most recent news/information. ...
- About to – Intending to. ...
- According to – As indicated. ...
- As a matter of fact – In reality. ...
- As long as – Provided that.
|Kill two birds with one stone||Solve two problems at once / with one action|
|Leave no stone unturned||Do everything possible to achieve a goal|
|Let the cat out of the bag||Accidentially reveal a secret|
|Make a long story short||Come to the point|
About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots.Why does English use so much Latin? ›
In fact, many Latin words made their way into English vocabulary over the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages. This was because Latin was still the language of scholars and educated people, so many English writers and thinkers used Latin words in their work.What is the Latin phrase for example? ›
The abbreviation “i.e.” stands for id est, which is Latin for “that is.” The abbreviation “e.g.” stands for the Latin phrase exempli gratia, meaning “for example.”Why is Latin a dead language? ›
Classical Latin, the language of Cicero and Virgil, became “dead” after its form became fixed, whereas Vulgar Latin, the language most Romans ordinarily used, continued to evolve as it spread across the western Roman Empire, gradually becoming the Romance languages.Is English closer to German or Latin? ›
English is a Germanic language and it has more words in common with German than Latin. Although it has been influenced by French language a lot, but the number of words and the grammar is still more German than Latin.
|ENGLISH||LATIN||ORIGINAL LATIN MEANING|