Brush Up Your Latin

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Composite of lightning bolts and pen writing on paperFor 90% of us, writing is the bedrock of our business.  Having a good vocabulary, being able to structure a sentence properly and persuasively, and adding that special je ne sais quoi to a piece we’re working on is invaluable.  It’s not about using big words—it’s about using the right word.  Some of the most evocative pieces of literature use very few “big words.”  Orwell’s 1984 and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass instantly come to mind.

Take the first few lines of each as an example—from the first minute we know write away (pun intended) what the kind of environment is being lived in.  It’s not because the words are fancy (Douglass was mostly self-taught); it’s because they are the proper words for the situation.


It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvesttime, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.
(Sorry, that one’s kind of long, but still amazing).

So, what’s this talk of Latin if we’re talking simplifying our language?  Once again, it’s not about making it simple—sometimes it has to sound hoity to get the point across or express the right mood.  We frequently try to make our language sound better so we look more informed (and can bill more).

We all use piles of Latin or its derivatives, whether or not we know it.  This post was originally inspired by seeing the abuse of i.e. and e.g. Not the overuse, but switching one out for the other, when they do not mean the same thing.  So we’ll start there and move onto some other common ones that can be used as needed, but need (for all that’s holy, please) to be used correctly, or not at all.

  • est — “that is.”  Usually used to clarify or specify the prior statement.  For example, “Keep this quiet for now (i.e., just among the group included on this message).” Usually limits interpretations; not for citing a few possibilities that can be expounded upon.
  • e.g. — exempli gratia — “for the sake of example.”  When providing one or more examples of an issue.  It does not limit or specify but rather just provides possibilities that are to be used as starting points.  For example, “In case the launch doesn’t go as planned, e.g., we’re bumped because of a breaking story, it rains and we have to move from the outside location, the demo fails, etc.).” An easy way to distinguish these two, or more accurately remember the latter (and this might make the English sticklers twitch), you can (mentally) bastardize the spelling of example to get to e.g. –> eggsample.  Clumsy but works until it’s second nature.
  • n.b.nota bene — “mark well” (nota , as in “take note”; bene — root of all things “good” — beneficial, benefit, etc., as well as in Spanish (bien, bueno), French (bon, bonne, bien) and others) — one of my favorites.  Can be used to (more politely than “Please Note”) draw attention to something someone may not notice otherwise, e.g., “Nota bene, we’ll need your input to finalize the document.”
  • et al. — et alibi — “and others.”  Have you already used “etc.” (also Latin: “and the rest”) too much in your document?  Swap in an occasional et al.
  • post hoc ergo propter hoc (no, you can’t abbreviate this as pheph though I may start a movement) — “after this, therefore because of this” — Primarily used in logic and philosophy classes is used to denote a logical fallacy where one assumes causality because one event happened after another.  Clients frequently do this: “We had a hit from our prior agency on Day 1.”  Yeah, they could be SuperFlacks or it was the previous agency’s work that you weren’t patient enough to wait for.  Also a good West Wing episode.
  • post mortem — “after death” — Accepted and used to indicate a review after completion of a project.  I dislike this use because of the literal translation; if a campaign was a success it didn’t really die, just ended.  Other use—a post mortem exam is an autopsy.
  • pro forma — “for form” or “as a matter of form” — describing a set form, “a pro forma press release” (one of those boring template-ish ones), a “pro forma event” (call the same caterers), etc.

And a fun one . . . .

  • post coitum — I’ll leave it to you to find the definition, but can be used to tell an off-color joke in mixed company.

Bene tibi!

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  • Alex Aizenberg

    How could you forget Res Ipsa Loquitur “the thing speaks for itself” (an HST favorite)?!

    Otherwise, great job making me once again regret not taking Latin in HS… damn useless french… :)}}

  • jeffespo

    Thanks for reminding me of my minor in college… And any reference to Tuckahoe always makes me laugh

  • Tabish Bhimani

    So post coitum would imply, I can sleep with my clients? I don't know if I should be excited or scared of the implications.

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