Although English is Germanic in origin, over the years, it’s adopted countless words with Latin roots. It’s also adopted full phrases in Latin, including several you can use to describe wonderful or noteworthy events.
English is a funny language. Its roots are Germanic, and the most commonly used words today show this. For example, “I,” “the,” “and,” “a,” “to,” “is,” “you,” and “that” are all Germanic in origin. (1)
Across the centuries, however, English borrowed a huge number of words from other languages, and one of the most common sources was Latin. From the Normans’ invasion of the British Isles in 1066, to translators infusing English texts with Latin, French, and Italian words in the 16th century, our tongue has become packed with these Latin-based add-ons. In fact, it’s believed that some 60% of words we use today have Latin roots. (2,3)
In some cases, entire phrases in Latin have become part of our vocabulary. Because we've been having beautiful spring days in most places in the northern hemisphere, today we’re going to talk about Latin phrases you can use to describe something wonderful.
1. Sui Generis
The first is “sui generis.” This means “of its own kind,” and we use it to describe something that’s in a class of its own. You could say that Serena Williams is sui generis in the tennis world, or speak of Bob Dylan’s sui generis songwriting. In either case, we’re describing something that is one of a kind.
2. Ne Plus Ultra
Another complimentary term is “ne plus ultra,” translated as “no more beyond.” Something that is the ne plus ultra represents the highest point of achievement or the most profound example of something. For example, "The Godfather" could be considered the ne plus ultra of gangster movies.
This term has an interesting history. It was said to be inscribed on the “Pillars of Hercules” at the Strait of Gibraltar. The strait is a channel of water that lies between southernmost Spain and northwesternmost Africa, and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. These “pillars” —represented by the Rock of Gibraltar on one side of the strait and a mountain peak on the other— were supposedly set in place by Hercules. Some say he did this as a memorial to his majestic deeds; others say he did it when he destroyed the mountain that once connected Africa and Europe.
In any case, the strait was considered to be the western end of the classical world. The inscription “ne plus ultra” on the Pillars of Hercules thus served as a warning to sailors: “(Let there) not (be) more (sailing) beyond (this point).” (4)
3. Bona Fide
Another way to say something’s good is to say it’s “bona fide”; literally, “in good faith.” A used car salesman might make a “bona fide” offer to buy your car at full Blue Book price. If his offer is bona fide, that means it’s legit. He’s 100% serious and ready to give you some cash.
“Bona fide” can also convey that something’s genuine. George Clooney is a bona fide celebrity, for example. There’s no doubt he’s the real deal.
Side note: The opposite of bona fide is “mala fide,” meaning “in bad faith.” We don’t see this term used too often, but I think I might try it … it could come in handy! And since it's spelled so similarly to bona fide," I don't know why it's pronounced differently. But that's how the dictionaries say to pronounce them in American English: "ˈbō-nə-ˌfīd" and " ma-lə-ˈfī-dē." They seem to be more similar in British English. The Oxford English Dictionary says the British pronunciations are "bəʊnə ˈfʌɪdi" and "meɪleɪ ˈfʌɪdi."
4. Sine Qua Non
Here’s a little gem for you. Next time you want to say something is absolutely essential, say that it’s “sine qua non,” translated as “without which, not.”
A synonym for “sine qua non” is “requirement.” You could say that stamina is a sine qua non for marathon runners. (5)
5. Felix Culpa
Let’s end with the phrase “felix culpa,” which means “happy fault.” It’s similar to the phrase “happy accident.” Both refer to a mistake—or even a disaster—that winds up having surprisingly good consequences.
For example, if you met your life partner after running into their car, you could say that the accident was a “felix culpa.” Or if you were fired from a job—but subsequently found a much better one—your termination would be a felix culpa.
This was originally a religious term. It referred to the original mistake in Christian theology: the fall of man, which occurred when Adam bit that apple in the Garden of Eden. The redemption of man, which is said to have occurred when Jesus Christ died and was reborn, is seen as a long-term positive outcome of that original disaster. (6,7)
You could even say that the fall was a sine qua non for the redemption.
That’s all for today, folks. Hope you have a bona fide wonderful week.
- Stroud, Kevin, History of English Podcast. Transcripts, seasons 1-5, page 23, Accessed May 13, 2021.
- Dictionary.com. What Percentage Of English Words Are Derived From Latin? Accessed May 13, 2021.
- Adams, Blake. Why Are So Many English Words Latin-Based? Historyhit website, Accessed May 13, 2021.
- Britannica Online. Gibraltar, Pillars of Heracles. Britannica Online.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, Ne plus ultra, sine qua non, Accessed May 13, 2021.
- Oxford English Dictionary, felix culpa, accessed May 13, 2021.
- Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, felix culpa, accessed May 13, 2021.
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