“Carpe Diem” and Other Latin Phrases You Already Know

03 January 2023
By Sarah Angela Almaden
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Unsplash: Judith Ekedi Jangwa

Many of us have heard the saying that “Latin is considered a dead language.” But how could that be when we still use Latin phrases here and there, and the number of people speaking the language is growing each year? So… is Latin really a “dead language?” Well, the answer is not that simple and it all depends on who you ask.

Technically, Latin is a “dead language” because it’s no longer the native language of a group of people. Sure, it is the official language of Vatican City but Latin is still not the primary language of the people living there. In fact, the people living around that area speak Italian and English, and many other languages.

In a way, yes, Latin is “dead” but it is not extinct (an extinct language is a totally different story, and Latin is definitely not part of that group). In fact, Latin is sort of alive… not just in Vatican City or by the growing number of Latin learners. But it is very, very alive in the words we use and say, the ideas we learn and share, the theories we study and discuss.

Think about your favorite animal, surely its scientific name is in Latin (and Greek). For example, Canis lupus familiaris is the scientific name for the dog, and Rana temporaria is the scientific name for the common frog. Think about a philosophical phrase that you read somewhere, surely that as well has Latin roots. For example, A contrariis is the Latin term used in logic that means to the contrary, and Statu hominis is the Latin term that means the state of humans.

Unbelievably, we have spent most of our lives using Latin words. And that’s pretty cool. Because in a sense, we have been keeping Latin alive in our own little ways, by using Latin phrases once in a while. With that in mind, here’s a listicle of Latin terms that we have certainly come across many moons ago or maybe even just 3 text messages ago.

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1.Veni, vidi, vici

Translation: I came; I saw; I conquered.

The saying is credited to Julius Caesar, who penned it in a letter to the Roman Senate sometime after winning the Battle of Zela, in the year 47 BC. According to Plutarch, Caesar allegedly used the phrase in a report to Amantius. At the same time, according to Suetonius, Caesar supposedly inscribed the sentences while celebrating his Pontic victory.

2.Carpe diem

Translation: Seize the day

The old saying is taken from Book 1 of Horace's Odes, a piece of Roman poetry that was composed in 23 BC. You can also hear this phrase in the movie Dead Poets Society with Robin Williams.

3.Cogito, ergo sum

Translation: I think, therefore I am

The proverb was written in French by French philosopher René Descartes in his Discourse on Method, which was released in 1637. Descartes then referred to the same statement in Latin in his work called Meditations on First Philosophy, which was published in 1641. But, the earliest known use of the term in Latin was found in a margin note in Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, where he stated that "[W]e cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt."

4.Per se

Translation: In itself; by itself,

This five-letter phrase is sometimes written in italics, and it is used to emphasize a single point.

5. Et tu, Brute?

Translation: And you, Brutus?; Also you, Brutus?; Even you, Brutus?; You as well, Brutus?; You too, Brutus?

This line first appears in Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 1 by William Shakespeare. And it is told by Julius Caesar to his friend Marcus Junius Brutus, after learning that Brutus is one of his killers.

6. Acta, non verba

Translation: Deeds, not words

Similar to the saying “actions speak louder than words.”

7. Verbatim

Translation: In Exact words

The first use of the word verbatim as an adverb was in the 15th century and its first use as an adjective was in 1613.

8. Quid pro quo

Translation: Something for something

The expression is thought to have been popularized by apothecaries. And in the 16th through the 18th centuries, the saying was used to describe the exchanging of one medication for another.

Similar expressions include: “tit for tat,” “a favor for a favor,” and “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

9.Ad hoc

Translation: For this

This phrase can be used when referring to something that is existing, think of the saying “for this purpose only.”

10. Mea culpa

Translation: My fault; my mistake

This Latin phrase is taken from a confessional prayer known as the Confiteor and it is recited upon receiving Penance. So when you’re admitting your fault about something, feel free to say mea culpa.

11. Ad infinitum

Translation: My fault; To infinity

Ad infinitum and beyond — is used to describe something that goes on and on, without limit.

12. Et cetera

Translation: And other similar things; and the rest

The Latin phrase is a loan translation of the Greek phrase “καὶ τὰ ἕτερα” (kai ta hetera), which means and the other things. Et cetera is usually abbreviated as “etc.” or “&c.” or “&c.”

13. Audentes fortuna iuvat

Translation: Fortuna favors the bold

The Latin proverb may be a translation of Democritus's Ancient Greek phrase "Τόλμα πρήξιoς αρχή, τύχη δε τέλεος κυρίη," which reads as "boldness is the beginning of action, but fortune controls how it ends." According to Pliny the Younger, this statement may have also been Pliny the Elder's last words before he left to investigate Mount Vesuvius' explosion and help his friend Pomponianus.

14. Alma mater

Translation: Nourishing mother

Used to specify a college, university, or school that a person attended or graduated from. The phrase was first used to refer to a university in an English-speaking country by John Legate around 1600 at the University of Cambridge, where it served as an emblem for the university press.

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