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Carpe Diem and Habeas Corpus: Literal Translation of Common Latin Phrases

written by: John Garger • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/13/2013

Carpe Diem and Habeas Corpus are two of the most common Latin phrases in English. Learn the literal translations and meanings of the Latin phrases Carpe Diem and Habeas Corpus.

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    Literal Translation of Carpe Diem and Habeas Corpus There is no doubt that Latin carries with it a certain air of sophistication, education, and class. Ironically, this air is due to the use of the Latin language long after it was considered a dead language, i.e. one that was no longer spoken as a primary language of a people.

    The roots of Latin’s association with education and science began in the mid-second millennium, when knowledge started to proliferate to the masses through printed material and literacy was on the rise. About this time, the modern university was born, which eventually eliminated the mentorship model of education. Latin, the primary language of the church and all things academic, naturally became associated with education and science throughout Europe. Today, Latin survives as a throwback to this tradition in the many phrases and mottoes used by universities and institutions. Many Latin phrases are also used in everyday language.

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    Carpe Diem

    This popular Latin phrase has been popularized in books, movies, and other media, but the original source of this phrase is ancient; It is from Horace’s (65-8 BC) Odes, a collection of his poems. The original line reads:

    Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero. (seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow.)

    From a student’s perspective, “Carpe diem" is a simple construction consisting of a verb in the imperative mood and a noun in the accusative case. “Carpe" is from the third conjugation verb “carpo" (carpere, carpsi, carptum) meaning to “pluck" or “divide." However, Horace’s use of the word, given the complete sentence above, was metaphorically intended to imply enjoyment or fulfillment. Hence, the word is often translated as “seize" to avoid confusion had a literal translation been used instead. Certainly “pluck the day" makes no literal sense in English.

    Recall that third conjugation verbs form the present imperative simply by taking the present stem of the verb. In this case, the stem of the verb “carpo" is “carpe." To pluralize this phrase, recall that the plural imperative is formed by dropping the –e and adding –ite. In this case, we would have “carpite." (As a technical note, it is not that the –e is dropped as it is that the –e changes to an –i– with the addition of the –te to indicate that the command is intended for two or more people).

    “Diem" is simply the accusative singular of “dies" meaning “day." It is in the accusative case because it is acting as a direct object of the action of the sentence; it is indicating what the listener or reader should seize. Recall that since the imperative mood indicates a command, it is always considered to be in the second person. There are no first or third person imperative mood forms because commands are given directly to the listener or reader. What “carpe diem" is really saying is:

    Hey, you (singular)! Seize the day!

    As a side note, the word “carpo" meaning to pluck or divide is the derivative of the word “carpal" in “carpal tunnel." The carpal tunnel is a passageway through which nerves of the hand pass. It is here that we see how the literal meaning of “carpo", to divide, also finds its way into English.

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    Habeas Corpus

    In legal terms, a habeas corpus is an action that protects an individual from unlawful detention. It prevents an agency from holding an individual without reason. Like many legal terms, habeas corpus is derived from Late (or New) Latin, not the Classical Latin most often taught in high schools and colleges. Nevertheless, its form is exactly like that of Classical Latin and serves to illustrate two important grammatical constructions.

    A literal translation of habeas corpus found in many legal textbooks is “you (shall) have the body." Notice that “shall" is in quotes; this is because “habeas" is the second-person singular, present, active, subjunctive form of the word “habeo" (habere, habui, habitum) meaning “have." The signature –a– after the –e– in “habeas" is the indicator that this second-conjugation verb is in the subjunctive mood (as opposed to “habes" of the indicative mood). A literal translation of “habeas" could be “may you have" or possibly “let you have." The “shall" in quotes is used to indicate a theoretical or ideal state for which the subjunctive is used in both Latin and English.

    “Corpus" is simply the accusative form of the word “corpus." Do not be confused by the fact that as a neuter noun, “corpus" has a similar form for both the nominative and accusative cases of the third declension. “Corpus" is accusative here because it is the direct object of the verb “habeas;" it indicates what should or may be “had." So, a translation of “habeas corpus" that follows more closely the rules of Classical Latin can be “may you have the body" or “let you have the body."

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    Latin phrases and mottos used in English are great practice for the student. They are relatively short in comparison to complete sentences, and nicely illustrate the use of proper Latin grammar. In addition, since they are usually familiar to the English speaker, their meaning is already known. It is just a matter of dissecting the phrase or motto to practice Latin on a smaller scale.

A Dissection of Common Latin Phrases Found in English

The Latin Language survives today not only in the English lexicon, but also in numerous phrases used in academic, legal, and scientific circles. This provides a wonderful opportunity for students of Latin to dissect these phrases, which demonstrate a variety of grammatical constructs.
  1. Carpe Diem and Habeas Corpus: Literal Translation of Common Latin Phrases
  2. Anno Domini, Ad Infinitum, and Aqua Pura: Translating Latin Phrases as a Grammatical Exercise

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