Obiter dicta, or something to say in Latin

Professor at work

Homo sapiens consulting a vademecum

Latin isn’t dead; it’s everywhere, perhaps more than we realise – alibi, agenda, consensus, versus, homo sapiens, veto, alias, via, affidavit, vademecum, an item carried around, especially a handbook, and those indispensables i.e. (id est) ‘that is’, and etc. (et cetera) ‘and the rest’.

Maths lovers and problem solvers like putting Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum) ‘that which is to be demonstrated’ after their proof or to clinch their argument.

Some common phrases include:

  • non sequitur, ‘something that doesn’t follow’
  • bona fide ‘in good faith’ Some we ask for somebody’s bona fides if we want to know if they are genuine.
  • alter ego ‘the other self’ Yes, Superman comics have a philosophical Latin concept 😉
  • persona non grata (sometimes abbreviated as PNG) ‘unwelcome person’ Used today when expelling diplomats who have been found carrying out activities incompatible with their diplomatic status, i.e. spying
  • vice versa ‘position reversed’
  • quid pro quo ‘this for that’ or more colloquially, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours
  • Per se means ‘in itself’ or ‘as such’. It’s become fashionable and sadly, I’ve seen it written persay. (Cringes)
  • Cui bono? is a question you should ask if you doubt something. It means ‘for whose benefit?’ And it’s the perfect question to ask if something just seems to be too good to be true…
  • Carpe diem is well known; ‘seize the day’ or as we might say today more colloquially ‘Go for it!’
Roma Novan custodes?

Roma Novan custodes?


Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? ‘Who guards the guardians themselves?’ Juvenal famously asked in his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–8) and refers to the problem of controlling the actions of people in positions of power, an issue discussed by Plato in The Republic. Still a question very relevant today…

Mutatis mutandis ‘once the necessary changes have been made’ sounds high flown. Found in law, economics, mathematics and philosophy, it acknowledges that a comparison being made may well require certain obvious alterations, which are left unstated. Not to be confused with the similar ceteris paribus, ‘all things being equal’ which excludes any changes other than those explicitly mentioned.


Hannibal (allegedly), bust originally found at Capua, Italy


In ancient Roman history, res publica was used pertaining to the state or public and is the origin of republic, while Hannibal ad portas meant that Hannibal, the great enemy of the Roman Republic was at the gates of Rome, an expression used to frighten naughty children. Perhaps this has given rise to the expression ‘the enemy at the gate’ meaning the opposition are about to flood in and destroy you and now is the time to act.

Vae victis! ‘Woe to the conquered!’ is attributed by Livy to Brennus, the chief of the Gauls, while he demanded more gold from the citizens of the recently sacked Rome in 390 BC.

Damnatio memoriae ‘damnation of memory’ was an ancient Roman custom where all records and likenesses of somebody were eliminated, honours revoked and everybody pretended the person had never existed. Pretty drastic and sometimes visited on Roman emperors by their successors, if they weren’t made gods, on notable public enemies and famously Mark Anthony after his defeat by Octavian and subsequent death.

SPQR drain cover

Drain cover in modern day Rome


SPQR (Senatus populusque Romanus) literally means the ‘Roman senate and people’, but popularly called the ‘Senate and people of Rome’. It referred to the government of the ancient Roman Republic, and is even now used as an official emblem of the modern-day municipality of Rome. Many European cities have hijacked the SPQ bit and added their own city initial, even Liverpool – SPQL!



Roma Nova vexilloidRoma Nova uses SPQRN, of course – Senatus populusque Romanus novus.

And obiter dicta? This can refer to remarks by a judge which are not necessary to reaching a decision, but are made as comments, illustrations or thoughts. Sometimes a way of saying ‘Here are a few casual comments…” by a senior person in a profession or academic institution. A warning: you should listen to those, because they may well be the most important thing that person has to say…

Do you have any favourite Latin-based sayings?


Updated March 2020:Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, is now out.

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15 comments to Obiter dicta, or something to say in Latin

  • The Latin language is so fascinating. Great article!

  • Another worth remembering: “fiat justitia ruat caelum” – let Justice be done even if the heavens fall.

    And of course something that I found still correct during my years of work and residence there: “”ex africa semper aliquid novi!” – Out of Africa always something new. In my novel “Britannia’s Shark” one of the characters substituted America for Africa.

    The most relevant to daily life is however one involving ghastly mangling of the language but memorable none the less – the favourite I believe of General Stilwell as regards his relations with Chiang-Kai-Chek: “Illegitimis non carborundum” – Don’t let the bastards grind you down

    • Alison

      I think that’s where they pinched the title for the Meryl Streep film ‘Out of Africa’!
      And I love the idea of Stillwell’s motto, but it’s not good Latin! The two most common variations translate as follows: illegitimi non carborundum = the unlawful are not silicon carbide, illegitimis non carborundum = the unlawful don’t have silicon carbide. But it’s fun…

  • And some pithy reports for those of a military-history bent:

    “Peccavi” – by General Napier “I have Sind” – allegedly after conquest of the Sind province in what’s now Pakistan

    Not to Mention “Fortunatus Sum” – “I am in Lucknow” by Lawrence during the Indian Mutiny

  • Another good history/language lesson. Only wish I could retain all this interesting stuff!

  • Margaret Morton Kirk

    In vino veritas. Then, the following day: Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa…

  • Many thanks, Alison. My fav phrase is probably ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, though I may not surprise you to know that the Latin word is use most often is probably ‘placebo’. Now that my sons are grown up, I have sold the Volvo and rarely play Ludo.

    • Alison

      Haha! The post hoc fallacy! I forgot about placebo; as you say, an often used word.
      I think we need more ludo in life…

  • Mikie

    “Nulla salus extra ecclesiam” was always the ultimate threat. Question: is “extra ecclesia” – locative ablative equally correct as extra + accusative?

    • Alison

      I’ve only ever used the accusative with extra, and the locative ablative is pretty much confined to certain specific uses and places. Well beyond my pay grade to comment on these niceties!

      This may clarify the point you raise:

      “The Latin locative case was only used for the names of cities, “small” islands and a few other isolated words. The Romans considered all Mediterranean islands to be small except for Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Crete, and Cyprus. Britannia was also considered to be a “large island.” There are a few nouns that use the locative instead of a preposition: domus becomes domī (at home), rūs becomes rūrī (in the country), humus becomes humī (on the ground), militia becomes militiae (in military service, in the field), and focus becomes focī (at the hearth; at the center of the community).

  • Mikie

    Your usage and your corroborating research are persuasive, Alison. Thank you.