There’s something delightfully pretentious about Latin. It is, despite what the classics majors will tell you, a very dead language. And yet its use alludes to an era that many in the West naturally revere — the Bronze Age. These days, Latin is, more often than not, relegated to legal terms or mottos. These have an air of permanence about them. And while Latin’s utility has long since faded, there’s still something inherently awesome about uttering a phrase in Latin. Here are some of our favorites.
Ad astra per aspera
“A rough road leads to the stars”
Apollo 1 was the US first real disaster in the space program. Three astronauts were trapped in a capsule on the launch pad when a fire erupted in the cabin. The crew was unable to escape, and all three astronauts — Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edgar White — died. The motto “As Astra Per Aspera” was chosen in honor of the crew. It alludes to the enormous risk of space travel, acknowledging NASA’s many mistakes on Apollo 1, while also looking towards a brighter future.
Horas non-numero nisi serenas
“I don’t count the hours unless they are sunny”
On a lighter note, we have “horas non-numero nisi serenas.” This phrase, loosely translated to “I don’t count the stars unless they’re sunny” is a century old joke. Many sundials, even to this day, will have these words somewhere on their face. Because, obviously, sun dials don’t work at night or on cloudy days. It’s nice to know that even though we tend to think of our ancestors as being a bit stiff, they too, had a cheeky sense of humor.
Amor et melle et felle est fecundissimus
“Love is rich with honey and venom”
Most of us have loved before, and that experience, for all that’s been written and all that’s been said about it, is still remarkably hard to describe. I think this Roman quip hits it quite well, though. Love is, at once, an extraordinary agony, and one of the most enriching feelings we know. It’s simple but poignant.
Luceo non uro
“I shine, not burn”
Our first right-and-proper badass phrase, “Luceo non uro” suggests someone who shines without ever being consumed. It’s the antithesis of “the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” The ancients’ only real relationship to light either came from flames or the sun, and to them the idea of a light that never burned out was, essentially impossible. This is a statement of immortality, of greatness that transcends human limits.
Asinus asinum fricat
“Two idiots aggrandizing one another”
This is all-too-common as a real-life thing that actually happens. And even way back when, the Romans were familiar with the phenomenon. Often you may encounter two people who have no idea what the hell they’re saying about anything essentially jerking each other off and feeding into their respective egos. As annoying as that can be, there’s comfort in knowing that thousands of years ago we’d already found a phrase for it.
Viam inveniam aut faciam
“I will find a way or make one”
The ultimate statement of determination. These words are, allegedly, from Hannibal, the famous general that tried to cross the Alps with packs of war elephants in his march against Rome. Badass though it and Hannibal may have been, it’s worth noting that Hannibal lost his battle with Rome, and his generals were right — almost none of the soldiers and elephants Hannibal took to sack Rome survived the journey. So, perhaps it’s best to think about your hubris before you commit to something profoundly stupid. Or else, you could outdo Hannibal himself and be awesome in spite of the challenges against you.
Bellum se ipsum alet
“War feeds itself”
A precursor to “violence begets violence,” the idea that war is self-perpetuating, that, injured parties will come back some day to exact revenge is a powerful one. And it’s a narrative we’ve seen play out countless times through history. I shouldn’t have to remind you of World War II or the many, many wars between the English and the French. We often glorify war, and historically it’s been viewed through mostly positive eyes, but it’s worth remembering that, even if things seem settled, war rarely ever solves anything.
Gutta cavat lapidem
“A water drop hollows a stone”
Stones have long been seen as immutable. They are permanent, strong, and resilient. Hell, thousands of years after their construction, the Pyramids still stand. It’s hard to imagine something like the Empire State Building will stand even a few hundred years — even with proper maintenance. But, eventually, the Pyramids will fall. Countless drops of rain and gusts of wind will eventually wear down even the mightiest monuments. Even if it seems hopeless, small acts, over time, can conquer just about anything.
Homo homini lupus
“Man is a wolf to man”
One the main themes of the literature following the abolition of slavery around the world was a deep reflection on the nature of humanity. Indeed, the realization that people once thought it fit to own others seems the perfect proof of man’s own inhumanity towards man. We have a great capacity for kindness, for love, for nurturing, yes, but through the ages, people have been ruthlessly and relentlessly cruel towards one another. And we forget that at our peril.
Esse est percipi
“To be is to be perceived”
There’s a phrase that sometimes circulates, often in film: a man dies two deaths, one when his heart stops and another when his name is spoken for the last time. That hits at the root of this quote from philosopher George Berkeley. Essentially, it posits that if something cannot be perceived, it doesn’t exist. And there’s some truth to that on a few levels. If you never read some novel, then from your functional lens, its contents don’t exist. Beyond that, it could be interpreted as a radical affirmation of the scientific method, which exists to streamline observation and confirm, as best as possible, what is. In either case, the quote has a certain elegance, a poetry to it.
“Holding the infinite”
Mortality and the fallibility of people is a tough thing to grapple with. But, there’s an ineffable beauty to thinking that we might just be capable of more. No, we’re not Superman, but in metaphorical terms, holding the infinite isn’t impossible. It could well be a statement of potential, or of hope, or hatred or love.
“I know not how to yield”
I doubt you could get more self-explanatory. Western culture tends to idolize leaders and generals that refuse to back down when they’re in the right. That could be a bit troubling since those figures could either lead us to a glorious future or crush us with tyranny, but it’s a phrase that captures the imagination regardless.
Citius altius forties
“Faster, higher, stronger”
As the official motto of the modern Olympic Games, this phrase is one of the more prolific on our list. It’s one that hints at the limits of human potential and pushes us to go beyond what we believe we’re capable of. I can think of no more fitting quip the Olympics unless of course there was one about overcoming challenges through global unity or something but… y’know, this is sports so this is as starry-eyed as we’re going to get.
“The scourge of god”
There have been many, many conquerors over the years and a fair few have earned themselves specialty monikers on account of their prolific ability to slaughter lots of people. Not exactly the rosiest bit of human history, but there it is. Atila the Hun is one of the few with a very special and oddly specific title, though. During his reign, he came to be known as the “Flagellum dei” or the scourge of god. Given that Alexander the Great just became the… well… “Great,” it’s pretty clear that the people who fought Atila were more than a little scared of the man.
“Danger is sweet”
A slightly snootier version of “Danger is my middle name,” dulce periculum carries with it and affection for risk. It was also the motto of the Scottish MacAulay, one of the premier clans of the “Highland line,” which divides the Scotch Highlands and Lowlands. The MacAulays are, unfortunately, without a chief, leaving them mostly defunct as an organized body, but their motto lives on the lips of anyone who likes a dose of adrenaline every now and then.
Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque
“I make free adults out of children by means of books and a balance.”
This is the official motto of St. John’s College — a pair of schools in Annapolis and Santa Fe. It alludes to a deep reverence for the power of education to bring citizens into the folds of a representative democracy. Liberty requires knowledge, and through that learning, we pass into adulthood.
Ex luna Scientia
“From the moon, Science.”
This is another stellar (literally) motto. This one comes from the “most successful failure” of all time: Apollo 13. For those of you who may not know, Apollo 13 was part of a series of US missions to the moon. The Apollo program had already achieved two successful moon landings, and the American public had come to see space flight as routine. That was until an explosion on Apollo 13 put the lives of its three crew members in danger. NASA, which oversaw the mission, dedicated every available resource to repairing the craft and keeping its crew alive while under extreme duress. Had their efforts failed, the three astronauts would have been the first Americans to die in space.
To return home, Apollo 13 had to pull a gravitational slingshot maneuver around the moon, using the celestial body to speed up. While the trick got them back to Earth before their oxygen ran out, it meant that the crewman couldn’t land on the moon. For astronauts who had trained for years on the hopes that they might one day stand on the lunar surface and gaze back at the rest of us, the loss was devastating.
The motto, “From the moon, Science” is bittersweet. A reminder that the pursuit of knowledge doesn’t come without sacrifices, and that, even though they never got to land on the moon, their mission was still valuable because it greatly expanded humanity’s understanding of space flight.
“Remember you must die”
We all die eventually. This phrase started in Ancient Rome. Generals who would come back from glorious battles would be greeted with parades and awards. But, lest the general forget get too full of himself, a slave would stand behind him repeating this phrase to remind the commander of his absolute mortality. Since then the phrase has been a constant reminder throughout various schools of art that life is short and we will all, one day, die.
Disce quasi semper victurus vive quasi cras moriturus
“Learn as if you’ll always live, live as you’ll die tomorrow”
Learning is of little value if we don’t have a life to apply it to.
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