Updated: June 20, 2015 2:00:49 pm
Early this week, the Queen of England led celebrations to mark the 800 years of Great Charter or what is more popularly called Magna Carta in Latin. It was on June 15, 1215 that an apparently reluctant King John entered into an agreement with his barons to rule by a set of laid down principles. And since then, 3,600 Latin words and 63 clauses written on stretched and dried sheepskin called parchment have been credited with bringing in constitutionalism — the foundation of the rule of law as opposed to the rule laid down by an individual.
Latin, the language of the charter, is perhaps the most important language in European history, with its two enormously significant roles – first as the ancestor of Romance languages and second, as the classical language of high culture, equivalent of Sanskrit for India and Mandarin for China. Despite suggestions at certain points in history to cut down on Latin-derived words and instead use as many Anglo-Saxon words as possible, Latinism has come to pervade the English vocabulary, particularly when it comes to describe governance, politics and law.
This is in large part due to Latin’s ability to offer multum in parvo, meaning ‘much in little’. We look at a few Latin expressions which are more vivid and compact than their English equivalents.
Applying for a job, you never send a ‘summary of your career’. Instead you use a much shorter alternative, curriculum vitae.
Cui bono, meaning ‘to whom it is an advantage’, is the principle used in a criminal or other investigation that whoever has benefited from what happened is likely to be responsible for it.
Non-sequitur is a conclusion or statement that does not follow from the evidence.
Obiter dictum, ‘said by the way’, is an incidental remark or opinion by a judge which is not binding on the final decision. It is, therefore, a reflection, a digression. The plural form is obiter dicta.
Ignis fatuus, ‘foolish fire’ in English, is the name given to a light that appears sometimes at night, usually over marshes and probably due to the combustion of marsh gas. It refers to a false hope or an illusion. Other expressions for it are jack-o’-lantern and will-o’-the-wisp.
Latin borrowings by English language are almost inexhaustible. For students, their understanding is the sine qua non, ‘an indispensable requirement’, for a career in the language.
A word of caution: Latin expressions are never hyphenated.
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