Clover’s Literary Corner: E Pluribus Unum


By Clover Carroll

Although my mother discouraged me from studying Latin in high school, maintaining (wrongly) that it is a “dead language,” I’ve been lucky to attain a solid working knowledge of Latin roots and phrases in the course of earning college and graduate degrees in English—a legacy which would make my alma maters (soul mothers) proud of their alumna (graduate)! I have always regretted my mother’s ultimatum (final word), because a thorough understanding of Latin is fundamental to a thorough understanding of English.

Latin words and phrases took firm root in our language during the Roman occupation of Britain, from approximately 43 to 410 AD—or anno domini (year of our lord). They continue to amplify and enrich everyday English usage to this day, especially in legalese and patriotic mottos. While you have probably heard or used most of the expressions discussed here, you may not actually know their meanings!

Crozetians will soon gather at the beautiful Crozet Park to celebrate the independence of our beloved country—whose Great Seal features our national motto, e pluribus unum (from many, one). This motto appears on the nickel, the quarter, and the dollar bill, along with the motto annuit coeptis (e approves our undertakings), as well as the Virgil allusion novus ordo saeculorum (a new order of the ages, or a new world order). All of this currency may be used to purchase a delicious barbecue dinner at the celebration! The Crozet parade will feature authentic, bona fide (in good faith) fire trucks and stirring patriotic songs such as “From the Halls of Montezuma,” the hymn of the U.S. Marine Corps, whose motto is semper fidelis (always faithful). ‘Cause that’s Crozet’s M.O., our modus operandi (way of operating) i.e. (abbreviation of id est, or that is), how we roll!

To prepare for the festivities, I took my grandchildren shopping for their red, white, and blue outfits. While one of them ran up and down the aisles startling shoppers, the other picked up a sparkly Hello Kitty figurine and smashed it on the hard tile floor.

“Don’t forget that if you break it, you pay for it!” shouted a disgruntled store employee.

Mea culpa (my fault)!” I replied. “But it’s too late now, you know—as Julius Caesar said after crossing the Rubicon, “alea lacta est (the die has been cast, or there’s no turning back).”

The clerk gave me a puzzled look, as if I had uttered a non sequitur (it does not follow or an out-of-context comment). I suspect he thought I was non compos mentis (not in control of the mind—a phrase that dictionary writer Samuel Johnson theorized was later corrupted into nincompoop).

“You need to leave now,” he glowered.

Needless to say, my girls and I are persona non grata (person not pleasing, or unwelcome person) at that store now. I would need an alias (otherwise, which has come to refer to a pseudonym) to ever shop there again!

Next I took them to see a movie, where they greatly enjoyed the roaring lion logo above the MGM motto, ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake). The story began in medias res (in the middle of things), thrusting us into the action with a little girl hunting for her lost cat. The dramatis personae (masks of the drama, or cast of characters) included several cute children and a very talented trained cat. In the spirit of quid pro quo (this for that, as in returning a favor), the kids were good the rest of the day.

Legal documents make extensive use of Latin because it adds a certain gravitas (weight, or seriousness) to the proceedings. School personnel are legally responsible for their students during the school day, serving in loco parentis (in the place of a parent). This means that ipso facto (by the fact itself, or by the very nature of the case), we may discipline or reward them. As with adults, we grant them the privilege of habeas corpus (literally, you should have the body), i.e., the legal right to know the reason that they are detained or punished (the “body,” as of an argument, referring to that reason). Some lawyers work pro bono (for the public good, meaning for no pay).

I could go on ad infinitum (to infinity), but I’ll end with the recommendation that if you have teens entering high school at WAHS, they should seize the opportunity to sign up for Latin with Mr. Mann, that sine qua none (without which not, or an essential component) of teaching, who helped me with this article. This study will put them on terra firma (solid ground) in their understanding of English, e.g.—abbreviation for exempli gratia, for the sake of example—will improve their vocabulary, spelling, and reading comprehension. Because when you think about it, Latin is as American as apple pie!


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