Even as the redoubtable Sir Anthony Hopkins oozed forth those lines as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (which was released in 1991… on Valentine’s Day, no less), I was surprised by how many people didn’t know quite what that bit of Latin meant. Although primarily used in legal circles these days (mostly for the purpose of confusing the layman), Latin pops up in everyday speech from time to time. When it doesn’t, I do my best to make it pop, mostly so that I can watch other people’s brains pop as well. Yes, I can be wicked. Allow me to introduce you to some of my favorite bits of Latin lingo, for your own edification and the astonishment of those around you.
Quid pro quo (think “squid” without the “s” and “quote” without the “te”) literally means “something for something,” or perhaps “I give therefore you give.” Lecter gave Agent Starling information only in return for Starling talking about her own past mental traumas. A similar phrase is nunc pro tunc (both “unc” portions sound about halfway between “uncle” and “spook”) — “now for then”, or “now as though then”. It can refer to a retroactive pay hike, or it can refer to doing things now as they used to be done. In political circles, the term is used when expressing the desire for the return of laws from some time ago.
Another bit of Latin that we call know is the infamous document that forces you into court. Called a “subpoena” (sup-PEE-nuh) in modern American, the original Latin is sub poena (sub POY-na), literally meaning “under penalty.” Fans of the original Perry Mason series (with Raymond Burr in the title role) will recall District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Tallman) executing a writ of subpoena duces tecum (heard as sup-PEE-nah DOO-sess TAY-come), literally meaning “under penalty you will bring with you”. While a subpoena is usually issues to command a person to appear in court, the subpeona duces tecum is a demand for some form of physical evidence, such as documents of some kind. Writ is not a Latin word, per se, but is from Middle English (in this case, before the 12th century CE), from the Old English wrïtan, “to write”; “writ” nowadays refers most often to a legal document.
Just to show how much Latin we still toss about… how many of you noticed the term “per se” in the last paragraph? Literally, per se (properly “pear SAY” rather than “purr SAY”) means “by or in itself”, thus “intrinsically”. To add to a quote from John Stuart Mill to demonstrate, “Not all conservatives are stupid per se, but all stupid people are conservative.”
One bit of Latin notation that it’s important in writing (and, occasionally, in speaking) is the difference between the abbreviations “i.e.” and “e.g.” The overuse of “i.e.” has led to its misuse in any number of papers, editorials, and “tweets”. Id est (which is what “i.e.” stands for) means “that is” and could be considered a linguistic equals sign. An example might be, “Handle forensic evidence carefully (i.e., with gloves) to prevent stray fingerprints.” In this case, it implies that only gloves may be used. One might also say, “Handle forensic evidence carefully (e.g., with gloves, tissue, etc.) to prevent stray fingerprints.” In this example, we meet the abbreviation for exempli gratia (“for the sake of example”), indicating that these are only examples of what would satisfy the condition of preventing stray fingerprints. And although we throw “etc.” around a lot, you might want to know that the period appearing after those three letters is not optional; it represents the abbreviation of et cetera (“and the rest”), which we use to mean “and so on”.
Another bit of Latin that we see every day is related to something that you may have seen in Shakespeare. (Do we still have horribly ill-trained, terribly underpaid teachers trying to explain the Bard’s work in high schools these days?) You may have seen the word exeunt in the stage directions; it means “they (the actors indicated) leave the stage”. Exeunt omnes means that all the actors leave the stage, usually at the end of a scene or act. The Greek form of this term is exodus, which by association of the Christian bible has come to mean the departure of a large number of people from a place, usually in flight from something (e.g., slavery, tyranny, persecution, etc.). “Exeunt” is plural; the singular form that we see often is exit.
At this point, it might be good to introduce a Latin sentence that you may wish to master. It is Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. It’s from one of the writer Horace’s Satires. Pronounced “moo-TAH-toh NAW-me-nay, day tay FAB-you-la NAR-rat-ter,” it means, “with the name changed, the story applies to you.” The next time someone is telling a terrible tale of someone being an ass, slip that bit of Latin into the conversation and walk away nonchalantly, letting them decide if you’ve agreed with them or insulted them. Sometimes, Veteratorious Optimus (“veh-TEAR-uh-TOR-ee-us OP-teh-muss”)… which I choose to translate as “Sneaky is best.”
For a wonderful compendium of Latin words, terms, and phrases, I heartily recommend Amo, Amas, Amat and More by Eugene Ehrlich (despite that he forgot his Oxford comma), ISBN 0-06-181249-8, published in 1985. If you’d like a copy for yourself, please look for Amo, Amas, Amat, and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others in my Amazon store by clicking on the link.