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:
- Commonly Confused Latin Abbreviations in English
- Index of Commonly Confused Words
- Six Common Myths About Language
Image: Seal of Bournemouth County Borough Council, with the Latin motto Pulchritudo et Salubritas ("Beauty and Health")