A Look at Common Latin Phrases Found in English: Modus Operandi, Deus ex Machina, and Curriculum Vitae
written by: John Garger
• edited by: Rebecca Scudder
• updated: 8/2/2012
Some Latin phrases are so common in English that they come directly into our language without alteration in spelling or meaning.
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As a Germanic language, the mother of all Romance languages has oddly influenced English. During the medieval and renaissance periods of Europe, Latin stood for many centuries as the language of royalty, diplomacy, science, and theology long after the language was no longer a spoken language of an extant people. Today, English speakers pay homage to Latin by keeping it alive in numerous phrases used in everyday language. However, as is the case with many Latin phrases, the literal meanings of the phrases have given way to more common language that often betrays its true roots in Latin grammar. Discussed below are three common Latin phrases used in English with a brief analysis of the grammar at play.
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Modus operandi (or MO for short) is a Latin phrase so common to English speakers that it appears in its unaltered form in most dictionaries. In fact, the word processor used to create this article did not balk at either the spelling or grammatical use of the phrase. Modus Operandi is often mistranslated as “method of operation." However, a closer look at Latin grammar reveals a slightly different grammatical construction.
“Modus" is a Latin word meaning “method" or “mode." It is used to convey the means by which something is done. The mistranslation comes from the use of the word operandi. Were the correct translation of operandi “operation", then the word would be functioning as a noun in the genitive case (the case of possession). To be translated as “method of operation" the best Latin phrase would be “modus effectionis" (literally, method of practice). However, notice the distinctive “–nd–" in the word “operandi." This should clue the Latin student in to the use of a gerund. Recall that a gerund is a verbal noun formed in English by the use of “–ing" at the end of a verb stem. Therefore, the best translation of “modus operandi" is “method of operating."
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Deus ex Machina
Literally translated, “deus ex machine" means “god from a machine." It is a phrase used to describe a literary plot in which an unexpected person, idea, or event occurs to help a character overcome a seemingly insurmountable situation. Without too much further comment, it is a literary device scorned for centuries as inferior to clever plot development.
The word “deus" is simply the nominative singular masculine form of the Latin word for “god." Should a speaker or writer wish to convey a female deity, “dea ex machina" is appropriate. The “ex machina" portion of the phrase is a good example of the ablative of place from which. This construction requires the word “de," “ab," or “ex" followed by a noun in the ablative case. “Machina" is a feminine noun literally meaning “machine." As a complete phrase, it implies that a god has been manufactured artificially (from a machine) to conveniently solve some difficult or impossible situation.
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In academic circles, a résumé is often seen as too brief a description of a person’s accomplishments, especially for academicians engaged in scientific research. A curriculum vitae is much longer than a résumé, containing minute and sometimes inconsequential facts about a person’s experience. Where the curriculum vitae suffers in tediousness, it excels in accuracy.
An appropriate literal translation of curriculum vitae is “course of life." Latin students will notice immediately that the word “curriculum" is a neuter noun in the nominative case. “Vitae" is the genitive form of the feminine word “vita" literally meaning “life." As a noun in the genitive case, “vitae" is appropriately translated as “of life." Another translation of the phrase can also be “life’s course" since the genitive case conveys possession.
As with many aspects of English, speakers of the language seem obsessed with shortening, abbreviating, and condensing as much as possible. Often, “curriculum vitae" is abbreviated to “cv" and sometimes simply “vita." However, in its nominative form, “vita" simply means “life." It is as if to say, “Yes, we are interested in hiring you. Send us a copy of your life." Although common, “vita" is not an appropriate abbreviation for curriculum vitae. Even “vitae" can only be translated as “of life" or “life’s" as a noun in the genitive case. When using “curriculum vitae" in speech and writing, stick with the complete phrase to avoid an academic faux pas.
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Common Latin phrases found in English are wonderful exercises in identifying grammatical constructions. For the Latin student, they are an opportunity to not only explore Latin’s many constructions, but also discover misuses of a phrase juxtaposed to proper Latin grammar. Typically, the more common a phrase, the more likely it is that the phrase is mistranslated, misused, and misunderstood. The clever Latin student can identify these mistakes and strengthen his/her Latin grammar simultaneously.