Latin is a dead language. Or dead-ish. Detective Amy Santiago states in an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine that “it’s just taking a long nap,” which in a way, seems more accurate.
There are many reasons people continue to study Latin, despite the fact that no one really speaks it: Professions are steeped in Latin (e.g., law, medicine, science, music, theology, philosophy, art, literature, etc.); some of our most treasured texts were originally written in Latin; and history often points to Roman culture and the Latin they used. Still, most education systems don’t include Latin as a prerequisite like it does for English, math, and history, and learning Latin outside of high school or college classes is rare.
And here’s the conundrum: people don’t generally study Latin anymore, but they still use it on an ad hoc basis. Let me first say, as with any other language, you must understand what you’re saying before you use it. Let’s repeat that for those who like to skim: do not use Latin if you do not know it. For the large range of reasons why Latin is worth knowing, it is still not worth using if you do not understand it.
Using the Right Latin for the Right Reason
Enough people understand Latin to know when it’s being used incorrectly. Latin is so integrated into a variety of professional fields, ergo, it’s common to find a handful of people in a crowd who understand popular Latin words or phrases. That being said, if you use Latin incorrectly, someone inevitably will know, and then you won’t just look silly, you’ll look like you were trying to act sophisticated and intelligent.
For the most part, sneaking Latin into your writing doesn’t require Latin lessons. Many linguistic websites offer a cheat sheet of common Latin words and phrases that you can use as a reference. Plus, if you stumble across a Latin word or phrase you don’t know, you can usually find the translation via Google. So you have no excuse for bad Latin. None. Mea Culpas will not suffice.
Common Latin Phrases for Speaking and Writing
Here’s a list of most commonly mis-used Latin phrases, what they really mean, and how they can be used correctly:
However, I find that Latin words and phrases aren’t generally the victims of poor Latin. Most of the time, it’s the Latin abbreviations that suffer most. General rule of thumb: if you don’t know the long-form Latin phrase an abbreviation stands for, don’t use it.
One final plea: don’t use language you don’t know the meaning of (i.e., Latin). Remember that Latin is a “sleeping” language, and no one expects you to know it. But if you use it, you better make sure you’re using it right—this is not a que sera sera situation. And if you need any more Latin guidance, while I’m no Cicero, I’d be happy to help you with the sleeping beast.
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