Latin teachers talk a lot about roots, etymologies, and derivatives. But they often neglect to mention the really exciting news: Every day, we speak a whole bunch of words that Julius Caesar spoke. The same exact words, letter for letter.
There are hundreds of these Latin/English identicals. Here are some with interesting stories:
1. Alias is Latin for "others." When crooks showed up with extra names, the police would enter the other names under "alias." Later, "aliases" was coined, a plural of a plural.
2. Alibi started off as a narrow legal term meaning "other place" or "elsewhere" — this being the best legal defense of all if you're accused of a crime that happened at a specific time and place. The word proliferated into a handy synonym (both noun and verb) for excuse, explanation, lie.
3. Bonus is the Latin adjective meaning "good." When workers did a good job, they were graded: Bonus. At some point that translated into a tip. Finally, "bonus" came to designate the financial reward itself, and thus a Latin adjective becomes an English noun.
4. Campus is Latin for field or open area. A few centuries ago, every educated person knew Latin, so naturally they adopted this convenient word when universities were built from scratch on open suburban land. Campus was trimmed to become camp (noun and verb).
5. Credo is simply the Latin verb, first-person singular, meaning "I believe." The same root flowered into credibility, incredible, credence, credit, and now back to the root itself, cred.
6. Dictator, at first, simply meant one who speaks. The same root evolved into dictate, dictation, dicta. Then the Romans used dictator to refer to a magistrate with special emergency powers. Thereafter, bossy leaders were said to act like dictators.
7. Exit must be one of the most common words in all of American life. It's a law, you have to designate exits. Exit, in Latin, means "it goes out" (actually, he, she, or it). In many Shakespearean plays, when characters leave the stage, you see the word exeunt — "They go out."
8. Gladiator derives from gladius, the basic fighting knife of the Roman soldier. (A little knife was called a "gladiolus," as is a plant that resembles it.) Interestingly, the root glad- came not from the Mediterranean but from Gallic and Germanic tribes encountered circa 350 BC. The basic idea is the technological perfection, the smooth finish of the metal. There is even an Old Norse variant that means "smooth, happy." For the most part, gladiators had brutal lives, so it's counterintuitive that gladiator and glad are related.
9. Investigator is someone who looks for clues, evidence, footprints. The root is vestigum, Latin for footprint or track, and the source of another, more poetic word, vestige.
10. Iris, in Greek mythology, is the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods. Her name was borrowed for the only part of the body that is normally iridescent and can be many colors — blue, green, brown, hazel.
11. Liberator means "one who sets free." There is a cluster of freedom-related words in Latin, as there is in English: liberty, liberal, liberated. A Jeffersonian liberal is someone passionate about individual liberty.
12. Maximum is Latin for "the largest." We also have maximized, maxi, max, and others. Oddly, maxima (the feminine form of maximus) designated pithy wisdom and became maxim, as in the Military Maxims of Napoleon.
13. Monitor is related to warning, as in admonition. Sometimes this word is used when dealing with danger, as in monitor lizard and the first Yankee ironclad, the Monitor. Another theme is about being watchful, as in monitoring threats or production, and thus to the most common way of doing that, the computer monitor.
14. Museum is a home for the Muses, three or nine in number. The Greeks believed these goddesses inspired literature, art, and science. (For example, Calliope was the goddess of epic poetry, although later more associated with music.) The Romans evolved the spelling we still have today, and settled on the number nine, which seems to be echoed in the Supreme Court.
15. Panacea is Latin for "cure-all," and like many Latin words, it's virtually pure Greek. The common prefix pan- usually means "all" (as in panoramic, pandemic). One lush exception: "Panic" derives from Pan, the satyr-god much associated with abandon and sex, and thought to be the source of irrational fears. There may be no panacea for panic.
16. Podium is a raised platform you stand on to give a speech, not to be confused with "lectern." Pod (as in pseudopod and podiatrist) designates foot. "Lectern" comes from the Latin word for "read." A lectern is designed to hold a manuscript so you can lecture from it.
17. Trivia. Latin for road is via, as in Via Cassia. An intersection of three roads was called a trivia. People tended to stand around and talk, thus trivia for gossip.
18. Virus was Latin for poison and other dangerous substances. Oddly, "virile" and such words come from vir, man. Pace, feminists. The similar words go back to different Indo-Aryan roots.
For a list of more than 300 Latin-English words, see "Latin Lives On."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Save the world... by changing how you pee
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- Does solar energy have a battery problem?
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Why does Fareed Zakaria still have a job?
- 7 common estate-planning mistakes
- 10 things you need to know today: September 22, 2014
Subscribe to the Week