Translating Latin Legal Terms: Animus Revertendi, Ipse Dixit, and Liber

Page content

As with most professions requiring many years of college, law is filled with numerous Latin phrases that make the profession mysterious to the uninitiated. However, law programs rarely require a working knowledge of Latin; many lawyers who like to throw around Latin phrases are unaware of their actual or literal translations. These phrases, however, provide an excellent opportunity for the student to study Latin grammar in a more practical way.

The question of why Latin is so prevalent in law can be answered by examining the impact the language had on English several centuries ago. During the medieval and renaissance periods of Western Europe, Latin became the language of the learned; its use as the universal language of science, law, and theology still affects our language hundreds of years after Latin was spoken as a language of the common people. During these periods, Latin was artificially added to English through the adoption of thousands of words and phrases. Interestingly, English retains its grammar as a Germanic language, but took on many new Latin words in its lexicon. Few professions have been impacted as thoroughly as law.

Animus Revertendi

Animus Revertendi is a common phrase in property law that indicates an individual’s obligation to return, for example, livestock that has strayed away from the owner’s property. Without recognition of ownership, stray livestock could be taken as “ferae naturae” (a wild beast) without compensation to its rightful owner. The word “animus” is an interesting word in Latin. In the singular it can be literally translated as “spirit” but in the plural its meaning is “courage.” Here in the singular, “spirit” is appropriate. As a complete phrase, animus revertendi is often mistranslated as “intention to return.” However, the –nd– in “revertendi” is a dead give away to the Latin student that this verb is in its gerund form from the Latin word “reverto” meaning “return.”

Recall that a gerund is a verbal noun identified in English with the telltale –ing ending added to a verb’s stem. Revertendi, a gerund in the genitive case, is appropriately translated as “of returning.” Taken together, a proper translation of animus revertendi is “spirit of returning.” However, the word spirit isn’t quite right. Metaphorically, “animus” can be translated as “propensity” or “intention” which gives the typical translation “intention of returning.”

Ipse Dixit

Ipse Dixit is a Latin phrase used to express that a statement has been spoken (typically entered as evidence) but has not been verified or proved true. Ipse is an intensive pronoun that fully declines in all genders as a second declension adjective except with a peculiar genitive (ipsius) and dative (ipsi) across all genders. Ipse, ipsa, ipsud is used to emphasize a noun or pronoun. Take the following two example sentences :

Caesar mihi dixit. (Caesar spoke to me.)

Caesar ipse mihi dixit. (Caesar himself spoke to me.)

Notice that in the second sentence, “Caesar” is emphasized with “ipse” to imply that the fact that Caesar spoke directly to me is a big deal.

“Dixit” is simply the third-person singular active indicative perfect form of “dico” and may be appropriately translated as “he/she/it spoke,” although “told,” “said,” and “called” are also appropriate, depending on the context.

Together the phrase “ipse dixit” is literally translated as “he himself spoke.” Notice that the subject of this phrase must be masculine because the masculine form of “ipse” is used. Should a translator wish to imply a female subject, “ipsa dixit” is appropriate, as is “ipsum dixit” to mean “it itself spoke.” This is one case in which the gender of the subject is known not through the use of a noun but through a supporting pronoun much like “ille,” “hic,” or “iste.”


In legal terms, a “liber” is a book of public records such as deeds, birth certificates, and death certificates. In real estate law, a liber is used to indicate ownership of property such as land and buildings. In American law, liber is most commonly pronounced “lahy-ber.” In the classical period of Latin, this word is pronounced “lee-bear.”

One of the difficulties of learning any language is in pronouncing words not as one would in one’s own language, but as a native speaker of the foreign language. Luckily for the Latin student, pronunciation in Latin is far less complex than English. However, “liber” does produce one complexity that most Latin students find perplexing.

Although spelled identically, liber (pronounced “lee-bear”) meaning “book” and liber (pronounced “lib-air”) meaning “free” are declined using different conventions. Liber (book) declines in the singular as “liber, libri, libro, librum, libro” while liber (free) declines as “liber, liberi, libero, liberum, libero.” To help remember this distinction, recall that the word liber (book) is the derivative of our word “library” and is therefore declined with a long “i.” Liber (free) is the derivative of our word “liberty” and is therefore declined with a short “i.” Some Latin programs make use of macrons (ī, līber) to help indicate when vowels are long and short. Absent this indicator, the Latin student must rely on context, experience, and declension memorization to properly translate a given word.

Latin Terms Today

As the former language of science, diplomacy, and theology, Latin still has a strong influence on English speakers, especially in the more learned professions. Doctors, lawyers, and academicians are often buried in Latin terms and phrases; many of these professions are ignorant of their derivations and literal meanings. As an exercise is grammar, Latin students have a unique opportunity to explore Latin from a more practical standpoint and practice their knowledge on something other than war, poetry, and history, the main subjects of texts in Latin programs.