1. Education
Richard Nordquist

O Tempora! O Mores! Councils in Britain Ban Latin

By November 5, 2008

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According to a report from BBC News, several local councils in Britain have discouraged their employees from using Latin words and abbreviations in official correspondence. Because Latin is no longer widely taught or understood, the argument goes, "plain English" alternatives should be used.

Not surprisingly, classical scholars and the dwindling tribe of Latin teachers in the country are dismayed. Cambridge professor Mary Beard, classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement since 1992, has been quoted as saying,"This is absolutely bonkers and the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing."

Just as predictably, members of the Plain English Campaign ("Fighting for crystal-clear communication since 1979") heartily endorse the ban on Latin. "We are talking about public documents where people need to read, understand and take action that may affect their lives," said spokesperson Marie Clair. "It is far better to use words people understand. Often people in power are using the words because they want to feel self important. It is not right that voters should suffer because of some official's ego."

According to the "plain language" policy adopted by the Bournemouth County Borough Council, "Many readers do not have English as their first language so using Latin can be particularly difficult." Fair enough--but are the English equivalents of Latin words always easier to understand? The list of 19 terms considered unacceptable by the Bournemouth Council offers an odd mix of the familiar (ad lib, etc., and vice versa), the commonly confused (i.e. and e.g.), and the increasingly rare or specialized (prima facie and viz):

  • ad hoc: for the specific purpose or situation at hand

  • ad lib (ad libitum): spontaneous, impromptu

  • bona fide: authentic, made or carried out in good faith

  • e.g. (exempli gratia): for example, such as

  • etc. (et cetera): and so on

  • i.e. (id est): that is

  • inter alia: among other things

  • NB (nota bene): note well

  • per: each, through, by means of

  • per se: of, in, or by itself

  • prima facie: at first sight

  • pro rata: in proportion

  • pro tem (pro tempore): temporarily, for the time being

  • quid pro quo: an equal exchange

  • status quo: existing condition or state of affairs

  • vice versa: the other way around

  • via: by way of, through

  • viz (videlicet): that is, namely

  • vis-a-vis: compared with, in relation to

While we're all in favor of clarity and opposed to gobbledygook, it's doubtful that Latin is a major cause of miscommunication in the English-speaking world. And surely efforts to purge English of words that began their lives in Latin are unlikely to succeed.

More About Words:

Image: Seal of Bournemouth County Borough Council, with the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas ("Beauty and Health")


November 10, 2008 at 7:40 pm
(1) laura says:

I have just read your entry regarding the attempts to purge the English language of what, I suppose, could be called “latinisms”, or some such thing, since many of them are not the actual words but are abbreviations and some of them are, admittedly, often misused and/or misunderstood. E.g., people often use I.E. instead of E.G. when they’re meaning “for example”. Some of these expressions have been confusing to people because they do not really know what the abbreviations mean. They don’t know the Latin words themselves and what they mean so they don’t know what the abbreviations mean either. sometimes it is possible to understand the meaning of the abbreviation without knowing the actual Latin words. I use think we have all used some of them (correctly) in our everyday language and, while some are more commonly used than others, I don’t believe any of them are particularly obscure.

It may sound like a bit of a paradox but Latin, while not generally used as a spoken or written language, is still used (though its use is optional) in some Roman Catholic masses. Many famous choral works, such as the Mozart “Requiem” (mass for the dead) and others, are Latin. So saying that Latin is a “dead” language is not strictly accurate. It is still taught in some schools. Cicero’s works, and others (et al.) (wonder why that one wasn’t in the list) are still read. Many early church texts (including the Textus Receptus, on which the King James Version of the Bible is based), (oh yes, but that’s that old antiquated language, right?) So is the U.S. Marine Corps supposed to change its motto? It’s not British, of course, it’s American. But it’s also Latin.

Latin, while not used in conversation by anyone I know, is still valuable for many reasons. In the United States, not to mention Central and South America, Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Italy, France, (and variations of French) and even Romania, the spoken languages are called “romance” languages, and I don’t believe that has anything to do with love. It has to do with Roman (back then, that was where Latin was spoken) origins for those languages. English itself can be better understood by studying how its words originated. Latin is not the only source of course, and Germanic languages account for many of the words as well.

There has been a resurgence in recent years of the study of Latin and even classical and Biblical Greek and Hebrew. In the last decade or so, there have been many private schools and even a college, where the classical method of instruction (grammar, logic, rhetoric) including the study of Latin and Greek, have sprung up all over the country. There are several curricula available to parents of homeschooled children to teach Latin. I taught for three years at a school where the study of Latin, though optional, was encouraged from fourth grade on and there are several programs which teach children the basics of Latin, some using music to help them memorize those pesky declensions and conjugations. When I was in school, students were required to take at least two (and most took four or more) years of a foreign language. We started Spanish in third grade, before “bilingual”, meaning English/Spanish, became fashionable. Latin was offered from ninth grade on, and, while Latin classes were small, we did have a Latin club and several of the students who wanted to become priests, lawyers or musicians belonged to the Latin club and participated enthusiastically. There was an ongoing debate over whether secular pronunciation or church pronunciation was better. Some of the kids just took Latin so they could understand the Mass which, until Vatican II, was always in Latin. So some of the older kids (I was a much younger child but was aware of what was going on)wanted to be able to understand what the priest was saying.

I even dated the Latin club president for awhile, a kid who would have been rather pompous whether he had studied Latin or not and who actually did study for the priesthood, then law, then finally social work where he had to speak Spanish so I guess his Latin studies helped in the end.

Personally, I have always loved languages and, while I found Latin to be both an interesting challenge and a help in later study of other languages, church history etc. It is not an easy language and you can’t exactly go around speaking it to anybody except people in your Latin class, but it’s fun to throw in a word or two now and then. Have I made my point yet? Have I shown the proof? Ah yes, the proof. Which reminds me, what will all of those geometry teachers require the kids to put at the bottom of their proofs?
QED (quod erat demonstrandum?)

November 10, 2008 at 7:48 pm
(2) Khrystyna says:

Of course the Latin should remain in the language. How hard is it to learn a few expressions? If the reader doesn’t understand, he’ll just have to consult his dictionary: isn’t that what these things are for? And yes, these words are used in English BECAUSE there is no good English equivalent. It’s also very comforting to know that at least these expressions won’t change or have their meanings watered down or otherwise debased. I’m sick of the dumbing down of the English language, the pandering to the lowest common denominator who can’t be bothered to learn it properly.

November 11, 2008 at 5:00 pm
(3) Lanny Ackiss says:

Let me quote from Strunk and White (4th ed.): “Avoid foreign languages. The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.”

The same advice applies even to most common Latin phrases and abbreviations, I believe. “Status quo” seems to me the most defensible of the Latin items on the Bournemouth Council list.

Of course, as always, consider audience. A lawyer writing for lawyers or a Milton scholar writing for scholars will not follow this advice exactly the way a newspaper columnist or office manager should.

Oh, I had four years of Latin.

November 17, 2008 at 6:48 pm
(4) laura says:

n.b. Congratulations (seriously) on completion of four years of Latin.
Of course one should consider audience! Of course language is fluid and yes some words and expressions have faded into obscurity. I remember when first reading the King James Version of the Bible, I came across the old English word “peradventure” and the more often used but still stumbled over word “propitiation”. Of course I wouldn’t use these in everyday speech or writing. I know that Latin abbreviations are often misused. But there are words in our language that are not of Latin origin that are misused as well. That’s why we have so many lists of commonly confused words. While I admit that n.b. is not in common use. I also agree that one etc. is enough except in cases where its repetition is done for comic effect. Many of the listed abbreviations, vice versa, pro tem (as in Mayor pro tem) are used more often.
Then there’s B.C. In the last few years, this abbreviation is often changed to BCE, something which I find to be rather strange. I know it’s supposed to mean “before the common era”, but if we’re in the “common era?” then the corresponding abbreviation would, logically be DCE? (during “common era”)? or ACE “after common era?) So then, when exactly would the “common era” be? As far as A.D. is concerned, which lord are we talking about when we say “In the year of our Lord”? Sometimes I think these attempts at political correctness hurt more than they help.

January 9, 2014 at 7:55 am
(5) Jon says:

It’s heartening to see that most correspondents here are a lot brighter than some councillors. Or is it? The country is in a sorry state if all of its councillors are idiots. Oh well, c’est la vie eh?

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