Words and Phrases We Got From the Romans (Caesar Salad, Anyone?)

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A Brief History

On January 10, 49 B.C., Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River as he marched toward the city of Rome with his legions.  Since it was forbidden to cross the Rubicon with an army, it was seen as a threat to the Republic, and by doing so, Caesar made a bold statement about his intentions to seize power. 

Ever since, when we say someone has “crossed the Rubicon,” we are talking about someone who has taken a fateful and irreversible step, such as when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Digging Deeper

The Romans also gave us the Latin jacta alia est which translates into “the die is cast,” a meaning similar to crossing the Rubicon in that it describes events that  have already been set in motion and cannot be stopped or undone.   Unlike many other Latin phrases, usually we say this one in English.  Another phrase used in English rather than Latin and attributed to Caesar is, “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”

Have you ever heard about a man being “worth his salt?”  This is another one of those Latin sayings that is more commonly repeated in English.  Some Roman soldiers were paid in salt which was a valuable commodity those days, and a worthy person who rightly earned his pay was said to be “worth his salt.” Nowadays, this description sounds so much better than “worth his minimum wage.”

Many legal, scientific and academic terms are largely derived from Latin and are still said in Latin.  Examples include: habeas corpus; pro bono, corpus delicti; quid pro quo; pro rata; in situ; in utero; rara avis; pro tem; ad hoc; id est (ie.); exempli gratia (e.g.): and et cetera (etc.)  Even the scientific classifications of plants and animals are in Latin. 

The Romans also left a legacy of entire languages, with Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian (well, duh!) being descended from Latin and known as “Romance Languages” because of their Roman origin.  (I have not checked to see if “New Jerseyian” as an Italian dialect is considered to be a “Romance Language.”)

We also inherited the names of some of our months from the Romans as well as architectural terms such as aqueduct (aqueductus) and collosium (Coliseum) and medical and biological terms such as Caesarian section and gluteus maximus.  Latin influences are everywhere!  What would the Catholic Church do without Latin?  Speak Esperanto?

Of course, there are so many more examples of Latin used in English and other modern languages and societies.  If you missed seeing any of your favorites in this article, mea culpa!

Question for students (and subscribers): Let us know what you think the greatest Roman linguistic contributions are in the comments section below this article.  In the meantime, Pax.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Beard, Henry.  Latin for All Occasions: From Cocktail-Party Banter to Climbing the Corporate Ladder to Online Dating– Everything You’ll Ever Need to Say in Perfect Latin.  Avery, 2004.

Ehrlich, Eugene.  Veni, Vidi, Vici (Second Edition): Conquer Your Enemies and Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin.  Harper Perennial, 2009.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.