Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: Gloria Threw Up on the Bus on Monday?

(Or, Latin Awareness Since 1800)

Andrea Di Giovanni



“A good Latin quote illustrates something William F. Buckley once said of swearing on television, namely, the less it’s done, the more power it has.”

                                                                                    Andy Lamey, The National Post.


Before the close of the eighteenth century, the function of the Latin language in English was very different than it had been at the beginning of the Early Modern Period. The English language had “extended its robust reach into every domain of use” (Finegan 538), superseding Latin as the language of academia. However, Latin remained the main source of borrowed words augmenting the English lexicon (Nevalainen 364), and it became increasingly apparent that it would be impossible to leave Latin completely behind. The cultural division in the nineteenth century between who possessed this knowledge and who did not continues to surround the function of Latin in English today. Then, as now, the advanced knowledge of Latin was associated with the learned elite, while those without formal education either did not know Latin at all, or knew only some stock phrases. Today, Latin remains a “powerful underground river flowing everywhere beneath modern English” (Lamey AL1). This discussion will look at two areas of intersection between English and Latin since 1800: its impact on science and medicine, and the characteristics of Latin tags, short phrases used in elevated discourse that are recognized as Latin even if their meanings are not now known.  Both of these areas are affected by Latin’s reputation as a “learned” language.


Scientific and Medical Language


While the English vernacular still required additional regulation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its borrowings and constructions from other languages, especially Latin, allowed English to function in literary, legal, commercial, and scientific forums.  Science was (and is) an especially fecund field for neologisms, and scientific nomenclature accounts for most of the Present Day English vocabulary (Crystal 372). Quite often these new terms are formed from the languages of antiquity. In the early nineteenth century medical doctors were particularly adept at creating new terms from classical sources to name common ailments (Bailey 140).  The naming of the inflammations of various organs was a very popular practice resulting in tonsillitis (1801), gastritis (1806), prostatitis (1844), and appendicitis (1886). The procedures for the removal of diseased parts of the body were also given elevated names such as gastroectomy (1886), prostatectomy (1890), and appendectomy (1895) (Bailey 140).


The trend in word creation in the medical and scientific circles of the nineteenth century revived the inkhorn controversy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and two issues surfaced (Bailey 141).  The first issue with the newly coined medical terms concerned the etymological purity of the words constructed.  In the examples above, –itis and –tomy are not Latin suffixes, but rather are derived from Greek (Bailey 142). Purists believed that they should thus only pair with words of Greek origin. Ironically, “Such ‘mistakes’ in the creation of new words were visible only to those who, schooled in Greek and Latin, arrogated to themselves a privileged authority to opine about English” (Bailey 142).  In addition, this objection creates another level in the social division generated by Latin.  First, there are those who are familiar with the classics and understand the etymologies; second, those who employ the aspects of both the Greek and Latin to create a learned term without understanding etymology; and finally those who are unfamiliar with any aspect of either Latin or Greek.


The second concern in the nineteenth century was based on equality. While the new words were transparent to those who worked in the field, they were incredibly obscure to those who were not, that is, men without a classical education and the majority of women (Bailey 141).  This new language accorded a measure of respectability to physicians who could speak above the understanding of the patients they treated (see McArthur Private Language).  This was not always appreciated by the patients, however, and the complaint was not new. Suzanne Romaine quotes Thomas Phaire who attacked the tendency of medical treatises to employ Latinisms:


How long would they haue the people ignorant?  Why grutche they phsyicke to come forth in Engliyshe?  Woulde they haue no man to know but onely they? (The Boke of Chyldren, 1545, ed Neale and Wallis 1955). (quoted by Romaine, 21)


More recently, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, contains an anecdote from Bridge’s On the Present State of English Pronunciation (1913) about a patient who, having been prescribed a placebo, read the Latin ‘ter die’ on his chart and interpreted it as ‘to die’.  The patient promptly bolted from the hospital (Crystal 255).  While the tale is included in the Encyclopedia as an amusing example of the controversy over accent differentiation, it also illustrates that those not in the medical profession needed, and continue to need, interpretation of its Latin jargon. Had the patient known that placebo is the Latin first person singular indicative of placere ‘to please’, and refers to a substance given as a medicine but which actually has no effect (OED placebo),  and ter die simply means ‘three times a day’ he would have been far less disconcerted. Other opponents to the excessive use of borrowed terms simply felt that cluttering the English language with foreign constructions “help to deface the characteristic traits of our mother tongue, and to mar and stunt its kindly growth” (R.White, 1872; quoted by Bailey, 142). “The place of English in the intellectual life of Britain had become a matter of some pride” (Finegan 537), and thus the concern was that English would not be able to develop out of its unregulated, uncultivated state if Latin and Greek constantly superseded it in matters of science and academia.


Although the promotion of English as the language of science and medicine in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had much to do with national pride and the accessibility of the language, its use was necessarily confined to England, and in scientific and technological circles, the ability to communicate with an international audience is invaluable.  While these anglicized Latin and Greek compounds may have seemed mysterious to the layperson, they would have been more accessible to scientists in other (European) countries due to the continuing influence of the classics in European culture.  As globalization continues, and the likelihood of interaction with other non-European countries increases, the concern of maintaining clarity across different cultural backgrounds remains a relevant issue.   

Today English has become the “lingua franca of science and technology,” although its status as such at the beginning of the nineteenth century had not yet been established (Romaine Introduction).  However, while English has achieved enormous currency, many medical terms like femur, tibia, patella remain in Latin as part of a recognized language for speaking on medical subjects.  The term “International Scientific Vocabulary” was coined in 1961 by Philip Gove, editor of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary to refer the “classically derived vocabulary of science common to such languages as English, French, and Spanish” (McArthur International Scientific Vocabulary). An ISV word is one which gets its ‘raw materials’ from antiquity, usually Latin or Greek, and is often given a much more specific meaning than it had before (McArthur International Scientific Language). In addition, a work called Composition of Scientific Words appeared in 1956 to aid modern scientists with little or no schooling in Latin or Greek.  It refers Latin and Greek formatives to general concepts, aiding those unfamiliar with the languages of antiquity (Alego 81).  One of the most regulated of the sciences with respect to Latin is Botany, in which Latin is the accepted official language of nomenclature (Crystal 372). In Botany, combinations of Greek and Latin are therefore unacceptable.  Again, the use of Latin in Botany warranted the publication of a guide book in 1966 entitled Botanical Latin: history, grammar, syntax, terminology, and vocabulary by William T. Stearn. According to the title, the book offers a near crash course in Latin for Botanists who are not linguistically up to speed.  In all of these situations, Latin ensures that concepts are communicated to an audience which is assumed to understand a particular code.  That Latin creates a distinction between those who educated in the field and those who are not is a side-effect of the need for precision in the terms that are chosen. 

Latin Tags


The distinction of learnedness conferred upon one who understands Latin is often sought after by pundits (and aspiring pundits) in English. Even though the influence of Latin on the English language has subsided – it now ranks ninth in recent study of loanwords (Alego 78) – English speakers tend to resort to Latin more often than they are initially aware.  Thus, Latin continues to affect the lives of English speakers, sometimes very unconsciously, as people interject stock Latin phrases into their everyday speech, generating the impression of erudition. The insertion of Latin phrases into English is an example of code-switching called tag-switching (McArthur Code-mixing and Code-switching).  Tag-switching involves the insertion of tags and certain set phrases from one language into another, and this usually occurs among speakers who are bilingual in both languages.  Latin tags present an exception to this generalization, since very few speakers who employ them are fluent in Latin as well as English.  These tags are common in both academic circles and in everyday usage, and once were widely used until the mid-twentieth century as a mark of education. Lately, however, they have become less common and less understood, even in educated circles (McArthur Latin Tags).  Just as Samuel Johnson attracted criticism for his Latinisms, so too is the use of extremely rare Latin tags now deemed affected and unnecessary today (McArthur Latin Tags). 


Increasingly, Latin tags are used in their correct context without a solid grasp of what they actually mean.  This is comparable to responding to another’s sneeze with Gesundheit, while not knowing that it is simply German for “health”.  Examples of Latin Tags are modus operandi, deus ex machina, op. cit. (opus citatum, the work quoted or opere citato, in the work quoted), Tempus fugit, and mea culpa.  Some Latin Tags are used as mottoes; for example Canada’s national motto is “A mari usque ad mare,” from sea to sea; while the University of Toronto uses “Velut arbor ævo,” I grow as a tree.  Both of these mottos were created long after English had become the language of academia, but the use of Latin confers a mark of education, ceremoniousness, and prestige. As the medium for the “motto of virtually every university,”  “Latin rules the idiom of insignia, as of aphorism and epithet” (Goodrich 196) and it helps to maintain the culture of elitism associated with the “in-group” at centers of higher learning (McArthur Private Language). 


Despite the prestigious overtones surrounding the use of some Latin Tags, others are “firmly entrenched in everyday usage” (McArthur 591).  In law (habeas corpus), in medicine (post mortem), in logic (non sequitur, et cetera) in administration (ad hoc), in religion (Requiescat in pace), and as sayings (carpe diem, in vino veritas) (McArthur 591).  The title of this paper, Sic transit gloria mundi, means ‘Thus passes the glory of the world,’ and with the translation offered in the title line, perhaps the saying is ironically apt.  The glory of Latin, at any rate, has certainly declined, although its influence can still be felt.  Its effect on English is underscored by the fact that many of these expressions, and others, can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.


The elitism we continue to associate with Latin, (or perhaps simply the possession of the knowledge of any functional language that others do not have) humorously surfaces in “Pig Latin,” the school-yard parody of Latin itself.  The game is characterized by relocating the first consonant or consonant cluster of a word to the end, and affixing “ay.” Words that end with a vowel are given only “ay” (McArthur Pig Latin).  For example: “Atinlay isay ervay importantay”, (“Latin is very important”).  This gives every word an identical suffix, and is meant to resemble the effect of placing Latin declensions in agreement.  Both children and grown children alike use it to pretend at exclusivity, ironically underscoring the distinction of erudition conferred on those who know the real thing. 


As in previous centuries, the ability for Latin to be a divisive social marker remains an issue today.  The continued use of Latin in the medical and scientific fields, as well as in the theological and legal arenas, supports the existence of academic elitists, since it no longer exists as a compulsory component of standard education (Stray 1). Latin may be valued precisely because its scarcity and connotations of grandeur give it rhetorical force (Goodrich 194). Since the English language owes so much to the influence of Latin, perhaps some sense of George Eliot’s description of Dorothea Brooke’s desire to learn Latin still rings true today: Latin and Greek “seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly” (Eliot 59). However, Latin in English today is problematic for, although it is used to confer distinction, it is often misunderstood and derided as presumptuous and pedantic.  Perhaps Latin persists as an influence on English because it serves as a link to great traditions long past, lending to English the stamp of prestige associated with illustrious ancestral roots. Lamey believes that the “primary appeal of studying Latin today may be in how well it helps us understand our own language.” (Lamey AL6) While the English language is now secure enough in its own right, the use of expressions such as curriculum vitae, pro bono, and annus horribilis, emphasizes that, to some extent, Latin continues to influence and illuminate the English of the twenty-first century. 


Suggested Reading

Richard W Bailey,  Nineteenth-Century English. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan            Press, 1996


Peter Goodrich, “Distrust Quotations in Latin.” Critical Inquiry 29 (Winter 2003) 193-     215.


Tom McArthur, ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. (Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 1992)


Works Cited


Alego, John, “Vocabulary.” In Suzanne Romaine, ed. Cambridge History of the English            Language: 1776-1997. Vol. 4. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Bailey, Richard W.  Nineteenth-Century English. Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press,            1996.


Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge:            Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Eliot, George.  Middlemarch [1871-2]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Finegan, Edward. “English Grammar and Common Usage.” In Suzanne Romaine, ed. The            Cambridge History of the English Language 1776-1997. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge            University Press, 1998.


Goodrich, Peter. “Distrust Quotations in Latin.” Critical Inquiry 29 (Winter 2003) 193-215.


Lamey, Andy. “The Latin Effect: Dead language’s scarcity only adds to its power.” The            National Post. Wednesday, March 5th, 2003. AL1, AL6.


McArthur, Tom ed. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford            University Press, 1992.


Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language. 2nd ed.  Florida: Holt, Rinehart and      Winston, Inc. 1996.


Nevalainen, Terttu. “Early Modern English Lexis and Semantics,” In Roger Lass, ed. The            Cambridge History of the English Language 1476-1776. Vol. 3.Cambridge: Cambridge            University Press, 1999.


Romaine, Suzanne. “Introduction.” In Suzanne Romaine, ed. The Cambridge History of the            English Language 1776-1997. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University            Press, 1998.


Stray, Christopher.  Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England            1830-1960. New York: Clarendon Press, 1988.


Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition. Oxford English Dictionary 2 @ CHASS. 2001            2002. <>. May 5, 2003.