Vivere Proavis: A look at the continual influence of Latin on Modern English

Indo European family of languages


Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Motu Proprio1 Summorum Pontificum detailed the relation between the Ordinary Form and the 1962 Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Within the letter he writes

The Roman Missal promulgated by Paul VI is the ordinary expression of the ‘Lex orandi’ (Law of prayer) of the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite. Nonetheless, the Roman Missal [of 1962] is to be considered as an extraordinary expression of that same ‘Lex orandi,’ and must be given due honor for its venerable and ancient usage. These two expressions of the Church’s Lex orandi will in no way lead to a division in the Church’s ‘Lex credendi’ (Law of belief). They are in fact two usages of the one Roman Rite…[and the] Roman Missal promulgated by Bl. John XXIII…[is the] extraordinary form of the Liturgy of the Church. (Benedict, 2007).

This promulgation by Pope Benedict XVI was hailed by many Latin Mass advocates as a return to form (FSSP, 2007). Parish priests across the United States began celebrating the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, in full Ecclesiastical Latin. In 2005, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis Missouri brought the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to the waning parish of St. Francis De Sales Oratory. Less than two years later, the Institute was celebrating the Extraordinary Form exclusively for over one thousand faithful each Sunday (Bonetti, 2007). With such an interest in Ecclesiastical Latin in the United States, one can only wonder what influence this wizened language has had over Modern English.

The influence of Latin within the English Language can be seen in a number of places. Medical terms such as humerus or Homo Sapien have their origins in Latin, or are borrowed almost exclusively from the Latin language. As seen above, Latin has a great influence over ecclesiastical language in English. Latin has also found a place within our popular culture, with authors such as J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins borrowing from Latin to create a phrase or even name an entire country.

Finally, Latin has permeated into our lingua franca with colloquialisms such as the famous phrase, veni vidi vici. With the combination of ecclesiastical influence, pop culture referrals, and an already high abundance of permeation and influence on English words, the Latin language will not just remain an influence over English, but will remain a relevant player in the definition of terminology across all types of words for years to come.

For the bulk of the past two-thousand years, Latin has been the lingua franca or, common language of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.2 Accordingly, many of the terms used both within sacred scripture and liturgy have been borrowed from the Latin liturgies either in their entirety, or modified slightly for the English language. The recent modification of the phrase, “one in being with the father’ to ‘consubstantial with the father’ shows a direct relation between the Latin consubstanialis and its English counterpart (Lennon, 2011).

The Latin word consubstanialis was coined in the fourth century. During the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, the synod of Bishops was attempting to define the nature of Jesus Christ and his divinity.3 Since the Latin language lacks a present active participle for the verb “to be,” Tertullian and other Latin authors rendered the Greek noun for being, ousia, as the Latin substantia, and the Greek adjective homoousios (of the same being) as consubstantialis. Thus, Jesus Christ is said to be consubstantial with the Father in his divinity. This definement of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son was translated almost directly into consubstantial (Athanasius, & Newman, J. H, 1881). Most recently, consubstantial has resumed its place in liturgical use during the implementation of the 2010 english Roman missal, to further articulate the relationship of the three personhoods of the Triune God.

While articulation of liturgical beliefs within the Roman Canon into English is notable, their usage in the greater Christian and religious communities is even more important. For example, there is the term Evangelical Christian. Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement which began in the 17th century. It is a religious movement that de-emphasizes ritual and emphasizes the pietism of the individual, requiring him or her to meet certain active commitments, and usually support Biblical truisms and reject sacred tradition.

However, the word evangelical is not biblical at all. This is especially interesting as a number of Evangelical Christians are in favor of referring to God the Father as Adonai, the traditional Aramaic name. Yet, the term that they identified with does not have direct origins in Greek, Aramaic, or even Hebrew. The English word Evangelical comes from the Latin evangel. The Latin word was a translation from the Koine Greek euangelion, meaning “good news”. Evangelium became the term to denote the books Matthew Mark Luke and John, which is known as the Gospels in Modern English (Oxford, 2012).

The word evangelium was replaced with the Old English godspell (later, gospel). The Old English word had already meant “good news”, and this term was carried over to apply to the evangelium(s) of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term evangelium all but disappeared from protestant usage until it was revived under the guise of zealous spreading of the Gospel or, good word (formerly known as evangelium). Those who spread the good news soon became known as Evangelists, a term that stands to this day.

Within many modern novels, authors tend to use words from Latin or Latin roots to express a kind of etymological symbolism within their works. Latin is used to provide a tie to a historical or religious figure or event, to present a mythical concept, or even as a basis for language creation within a given test. Some notable authors who do this are Suzanne Collins, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling. Within all three of these authors’ works, Latin words or phrases are used to convey a certain meaning.

Within Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the reader finds notable Latin examples from the name of the post-apocalyptic nation-Panem. The word panem comes directly from Latin, a word for loafed grain (bread). When looking at the nation of Panem and its tight control over food supplies of its people, the name and the phrase, panem et circences can be brought to the mind of the reader. This phrase originates from Rome in Satire X of the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (circa 100 AD). In context, the Latin metaphor, panem et circenses (bread and circuses) identifies the only remaining cares of a new Roman populace which cares not for its historical birthright of political involvement (Toner, 1995).

Beyond the name of the Capitol as Panem, the fictional city and its residents seem to have a strong affinity or association with Roman history and Latin words and names. Katniss Everdeen’s beauty team. The word Flavius literally means golden, which can be compared to the character’s golden lipstick and bouncy orange curls. Octavia’s name corresponds to Octavian, who was the Roman emperor Augustus. There is Venia, whose name corresponds to the English word venial for a sin that is not very serious. Venia, like the rest of the citizens at the Capitol is vain, obsessed with her self-image, and inconsiderate of others. Finally, Collins coined the term ‘avox’ for someone whose tongue was cut from their mouths for disobedience to the Capitol. Vox itself is the Latin word for voice, and with the article a- placed before it, is a direct definition of no-voice (Oxford, 2012). Clearly, Suzanne Collins did her research when writing the Hunger Games.

The influence of Latin upon the works of J.R.R. Tolkien are less explicit than those within Suzanne Collins’ work, but are nonetheless important in their own right. When writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was working on the Oxford English Dictionary and translating various portions of text for what became known as the Jerusalem Bible.4 His understanding of both the Latin language and how etymologies worked added much to his writings—story wise, the tale of Aragorn is similar to that of Aeneas, in regards to Aragorn’s Paths of the Dead.

Within Tolkien’s novel, the King Returned Aragorn journeys through a cave deep within a mountainside to amass an army of curded dead. Similarly, Latin texts within the twelfth century had a tradition of exercitus mortuorum or, excited dead. Tolkien’s knowledge of words allowed him to not just coin terms ranging from Hobbiton, Morodor, and Orcs5, but his experience in language allowed him to create entire languages for the world of Middle Earth (Tolkien, 1995).

While both Collins and Tolkien take influence from Latin, it is J.K. Rowling, author of the bestselling Harry Potter series who immerses her fantasy world within the realm of Latin. From spells such as accio and protego, to names ranging from Severus, Lucius, and even Minerva McGonagall6 all have origins either directly from the Latin language, or are some westernization of a Latin name. Severus was the family name of Septimus Severus, first emperor of the Severan dynasty of Rome (Birley, 1972). Minerva was a Latinization of the Greek Goddess Athena, and Lucius was a common Roman name, which stemmed from the Latin word lux, meaning light (Grant, 1985). Rowling does not merely use a word or phrase in Latin for some random name- indeed, the summoning charm accio directly means to call for, or reach. Aguamenti, a spell which produces water, comes directly from the Latin word, agua (Oxford, 2012).

The use of Latin amongst ecclesiastical authorities and Authors has certainly contributed to a usage of Latinized words. The origins of words such as debt (debita), temptation (tentatcionem), and even father (pater) all have roots in the realm of Latin (Oxford, 2012). The influence of the Latin language does not end with everyday words or symbolic literature however. Today’s rising fields of Science and medicine are adapting Latin terminology to define objects from the largest of the cosmos, down to the most infinitesimally small microorganism. Medical Terminology often uses words created using prefixes and suffixes in Latin and

Ancient Greek. In medicine, their meanings, and their etymology, are informed by the language of origin. Prefixes and suffixes, primarily in Greek—but also in Latin, have a droppable -o-. Medical roots generally go together according to language: Greek prefixes go with Greek suffixes and Latin Prefixes with Latin Suffixes. Although it is technically considered acceptable to create hybrid words, it is strongly preferred not to mix different lingual roots (Linné, 1959).

Many organizations today have Latin mottos. The United States Coast Guard’s motto is “Semper Paratus” (always ready), and the United States Marine Corps’ motto is “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful). Several of the states of the United States also have Latin mottos, such as “Montani Semper Liberi” (Mountaineers are always free), the state motto of West Virginia; “Sic semper tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants), that of Virginia; “Esse Quam Videri” (To be rather than to seem), that of North Carolina; and “Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice” (“If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”) that of Michigan.

The Latin language has certainly influenced English from its earliest days to now. From the replacement of evangelium to godspell, all the way to the use of humerus for a bone in the human body, Latin has continued to provide a concrete set of prefixes and suffixes to define English words at a basic root level. Authors have cherry-picked Latin words and phrases emphasize character attributes or even to denote political or societal intent. Finally, Latin has been relegated to a regal status in Modern English, with its usage for honorable and official mottos to denote a sense of cultural awareness, and historical ties to a bygone era.

The modern English language is an organic development that has Latin as an ancestor. Yet the influence of Latin is far from stagnant. So long as religion studies her history, Authors leave breadcrumbs in mythology, and science continues discovery and classification, Latin will continue to be the foremost language that English refers to when continuing to adapt and grow for years to come.




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Birley, A. R. (1972). Septimius Severus; the African emperor. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Bonetti, D. (2007, May 10). Celebrating restoration and preservation. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, p. 8.

FSSP. (2007). Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. The Priestly Fraterneity of Saint Peter

(North America). Retrieved March 22, 2012, from

Grant, M. (1985). The Roman Emperors. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Lennon, R. (2011). “Consubstantial”: At the Root of our Faith – Why it is in our Creed.

Diocese of Cleveland. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from

Linné, C. V., Stearn, W. T., & Heller, J. L. (1959). Species plantarum. London: Ray Soc.

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Rogerson, J. W. (2001). The Oxford illustrated history of the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tolkien, J. R., & Tolkien, C. (1994). The war of the jewels: The later Silmarillion, part two, the legends of Beleriand. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Toner, J. P. (1995). Leisure and Ancient Rome. Cambridge [England: Polity Press. Wilkinson, D. (2006, December 3). Sermon: Christmas Slap. St. Nicholas Center. Retrieved March 20, 2012, from