[Author’s note: I started this contribution more than two years ago, but had to set it aside for more urgent undertakings (like a filter for Salon letters), but the recent posting by Joe Klein on Time’s Swampland blog in which he casually inserted what he apparently thought was a Latin phrase, *ad nauseum (I say apparently because he put the phrase in italics, indicating that he didn't consider it English). Since this solecism, while extremely common on blogs, now has the imprimatur of Time Magazine (presumably Swampland doesn’t have an editor, or at least not one familiar with Latin), it is clearly time to dust off this little excursus on the misuse of Latin by bloggers in hopes of, if not encouraging the miscreants to mend their ways and look up things that they don't know (after all it is hard to change the habits of a lifetime), at least heaping well-deserved ridicule and scorn on their pretentiousness.]
Yeah, I know — this blog is supposed to be about English. But English is a voracious language that accepts not only unlimited loan words but also takes over foreign words and phrases wholesale. In fact, according to James D. Nicoll:
We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.— James D. Nicoll
But I digress. Not only was English syntax consciously remodeled after Latin in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the prestige of the classical languages led to a great number of neologisms based on Latin and Greek roots as well as many loanwords taken directly from the classical languages. Indeed, many common abbreviations used in writing were based on Latin phrases (i.e., e.g., loc. cit., etc.). By contrast, English's sister language rejected most of the Latin/Greek etymologies and instead calqued (loan translated) the English into German (E. rhinoceros [‘nose horn’], G. Näshorn; E. exposition, G. Ausstellung; E. television, G. Fernseher, and so on) and uses German abbreviations rather than abbreviations of Latin (d.h., z.B., a.a.O., usw.).
The prestige of the classical languages has also ensured that many Latin phrases and expressions are used in English prose to give status to the author as an educated person (there was a time, not all that long ago, when a knowledge of Latin and Greek was simply the mark of an educated person; no one went to university without knowing Latin and Greek). Indeed, in many European universities dissertations were still written in Latin well into the twentieth century.
Latin (and to a considerably lesser extent Greek) expressions thus find their way into English prose, either because they are well known and familiar, or because writers wish to show, by their knowledge of Latin, that they are educated persons. What then of those who misuse Latin expressions in their writing? — get the wrong expression, misspell them, use the wrong case, or just generally demonstrate a complete lack of knowledge of Latin vocabulary, grammar, and syntax? If one is generous, one could just say that they made a mistake — everyone makes mistakes; if one is less generous, one might be inclined to say that they are trying to capitalize on the prestige generated by the use of Latin and mark themselves as knowledgeable and educated when, in fact, they lack the knowledge and education that they are implicitly claiming.
Here then are some of the most common mistakes to be found in the use of Latin by bloggers (and by blog commenters):
- Most common mistake: habeus corpus (Google gets about 112,000 hits for “habeus”, but is self-correcting in that a search for “habeus corpus” returns habeas corpus as well)
- Reasons for the mistake:
- Lack of knowledge of Latin plus a general belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um.
- There is a natural linguistic tendency for making word pairs, especially when the words are foreign/not understood (i.e., nonsense), phonetically congruent. Thus ‘hocus pocus’, ‘abra cadabra’, ‘jibber-jabber’, and so on.
- A pronunciation spelling since the final a of habeas is unstressed and hence pronounced as shwa (an uh-sound; [ə]) and thus phonetically matches the final syllable of corpus triggering the spelling of habeas as *habeus.
- The correct form and interpretation:
- The expression ‘habeas corpus’ is now fully English. There is no need to italicize it (although it frequently is) and it will be found in practically any dictionary of English. It represents the Latin habeās corpus, “produce the body,”, from habeās, second person sing. present subjunctive of habēre, ‘to have’ + corpus, ‘body.’
- Using this expression cannot be considered a bid for prestige, since it has no English equivalent, there is no simple English phrase that expresses the concept; for the reason for this, see here. There is, however, no excuse for misspelling it if one is at all familiar with Latin.
- Most common mistakes: cassus belli, causus belli
- Reasons for the mistakes:
- It is difficult to characterize cassus belli as a mistake because the form cassus does occur in Latin. This is the result of a process that is fairly common cross-linguistically, usually known as metathesis of length or quantitative metathesis. This often involves two consecutive vowel sounds, one short and one long, where the length is transferred from one vowel to the other, but it also occurs between a long vowel and a following consonant so that the vowel is shortened and the consonant is lengthened (doubled). The basic form is cāsus so in living Latin the form cassus is a natural variant. As for English, it has no long vowels (although most speakers don't realize this), so if the pronunciation given by the OED is followed ([keɪsəs], i.e., with the same vowel sound as in English ‘case, cases’), then the spelling <casus> is likely. However, if the more common value of written a ([æ]) is used in imitation of Latin a then the spelling <cassus> is natural (compare the a-sounds in ‘plate’ and ‘platter’) and “cassus” is again a pronunciation spelling.
- A secondary reason for the use of “cassus belli” is name recognition: Cassus Belli is a well-known rapper from Lyon.
- The error “causus belli” comes from confusing Latin causa, “cause,” with Latin cāsus, “case,” and then making causa into *causus, again in the mistaken belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um, perhaps abetted by a faint memory of “casus belli.” This mistake is perhaps natural because cāsus bellī is frequently translated, or at least thought of, as “cause of war” rather than the more appropriate “case for war.” There is nothing wrong with causa bellī, “cause of war”; it is perfectly good Latin. But *“causus belli” is not.
- The correct form and interpretation:
- The correct English form is casus belli, representing the Latin cāsus bellī, “case for war.” It is usually italicized as a foreign phrase. The phrase came into use in the 17th and 18th centuries as as a technical term as part of the political “just war” doctrine. Anyone intending to wage a “just war” was expected to provide a cāsus bellī or a “case for war.” Thus the term comes from New Latin, rather than from the living language of the classical period and hence “cassus belli” is not a natural variant. The technical term chosen was cāsus bellī and that is what the correct term is. While causa bellī is good Latin, it also is not the technical term used in connection with the “just war” doctrine. And *“causus belli” is nothing but a mistake, pure and simple.
- Most common mistake: ad nauseum (although I confess to having seen ad nauseaum at least once)
- Reasons for the mistake:
- Lack of knowledge of Latin plus a general belief that all Latin words end in -us or -um plus analogy to similar phrases, such as ad infinitum, that properly have the case ending -um.
- The correct form and interpretation:
- This one is really a no-brainer. The Latin word for ‘nausea’ is — surprise, surprise — nausea; the preposition ad when it expresses motion governs the accusative case; the accusative singular of nausea is nauseam. Therefore, the correct expression is ad nauseam, “to the point of disgust/revulsion/nausea.”
- The expression is actually a shortening of a term from logic, argumentum ad nauseam, in which an argument is repeated over and over until your opponent just gets sick of hearing it. There are many such terms based on the argumentum ad … format, and, since many Latin nouns are second declension masculines or neuters and since the accusative singular of both masculine and neuter second declension nouns is -um, those who are unfamiliar with Latin may be led to believe that the object noun in this construction always ends in -um. However, everyone is familiar with the expression argumentum ad hominem (often shortened to ad hominem, but, interestingly enough, never seen as *“ad hominum”) so everyone has the means at their disposal to disprove this belief and realize that the -um ending in this formula is not invariant. Moreover, there are a sufficient number of first declension feminines used in this formula (argumentum ad consequentiam “to the consequence”, ad crumenam “to the purse”, ad ignorantiam “to ignorance”, ad logicam “to logic”, ad misericordiam “to pity”, etc.) that it should be obvious to anyone with any familiarity with Latin or logic or even English that there are more endings than -um possible in the argumentum ad … formula.
I'll call a halt to this here, but there are, needless to say, many other Latin phrases that can be, and are, abused regularly. These are just three of the most common abuses, seen on an almost daily basis and done by those who ought to know better. There is no excuse for this, especially when there are numerous lists of common Latin phrases available on the intertubes. Wikipedia has one and while Wikipedia may not alway be reliable on controversial issues, for straightforward matters of fact they are pretty good. If you don't want to use Wikipedia, there is always “The Google” and you can simply Google “list of Latin phrases” and take your choice.
A writer's use of Latin phrases here and there is expected to give his or her work a certain cachet and accord the writer a certain amount of respect for his or her knowledge and education. But nothing screams ignorance and incompetence more loudly than misusing the very devices meant to demonstrate knowledge and competence.