I like using Latin terms. I wasn’t a great Latin scholar, but I find the clarity and brevity of Latin terms useful. But it’s fair to say that usage of Latin phrases has gone down, at least in the world of business.
That’s a function of many things, including changing education systems, greater globalisation and new methods of communications. Many would say that using a Latin term that large numbers of readers will not know is showing off and deliberately obfuscatory. Many of those people, however, probably use terms like “etc” (et cetera)” i.e.” (id est) and “eg.” (exempli gratia) everyday.
Finance has its share of technical terms from Latin, such as pari passu (“ranking equally”) in the field of bonds, ad valorem (“according to value”) and ex ante (“before the event”, as in the ex-ante returns beloved of the hedge fund world).
Technology in contrast, doesn’t have much Latin, unlike the law or medicine or biology and other sciences. The omnipresence of tech and its language across all activities is undoubtedly a factor in the retreat of Latin.
Used sensibly, the precision of Latin terms can make them stand out as little rocks of clarity amid a sea of lazy, muddled business-speak.
Everyone – even those who don’t admit it – have a list of acceptable and unacceptable Latin phrases. There are words they know and use, words they appreciate being used by others and words that are meaningless and thus annoying.
To me, the area for legitimate debate is not around the naturalised phrases in common use, such as vice versa, bona fide, de facto, per capita, or ad hoc. Nor is it around phrases which educated people might have known 50 years ago, such as alea iacta est (“the die is cast”) or quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (“who watches the watchmen”), but where there is simply no critical mass of users in standard business English today.
Rather the debate is around the middle ground: phrases that are known and used by some, but not most. My group here would include carpe diem, modus operandi, quid pro quo, cui bono, ad hominem, caveat emptor and my two personal favourites, ceteris paribus (“all else being equal”) and deus ex machina (a very succinct way of talking about “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation”). Hugely word count saving.
No doubt because I don’t use it, QED (quod erat demonstrandum: “which was to be proved”) in contrast seems to me rather pretentious and dated. Other phrases that may be out of date would include ergo: (therefore, consequently) and ipso facto (by that very fact or act, as an inevitable result).
Phrases whose use is holding up better might also include per se (“by itself”), prima facie (“true, valid, or sufficient at first impression) and sine qua non (“absolutely indispensable or essential”). Some day I must do the exercise of putting all the phrases through the search function of The Economist, The New York Times or the Financial Times.
Other languages also have some wonderful phrases that express things well.
Some French phrases are used in finance – force majeure comes to mind. While George W Bush apocryphally claimed that the French had no word for entrepreneur, French terms like coup de grace or coup de main enliven sentences.
We probably have a bit less German, but schadenfreude (for we have no single word in English) seems to be lasting well, though weltanschauung is a bit much. Words fall out of fashion – military juntas, from the Spanish, was regularly used in the past. Languages always attract new words from elsewhere.
English in the UK took many words from India, some are now completely absorbed like bungalow, pundit and veranda. Some like tiffin and naukar-chaukar have fallen out of use, while others like pukka or purdah that operate rather like the Latin terms above.
Ultimately usage of language is about how much you want to write for a broader audience, being as bland as possible, or a narrower audience where you can use a more distinct argot. There is no right or wrong, the main thing is to be conscious of the choices you make as you write. The lowest common denominator rarely works. Don’t use phrases that don’t seem natural to you, everybody has their own style.
Personally the one rule of George Orwell I rebel against is his admonition to “never use a foreign phrase when an English one will do”. I think that Latin and other foreign phrases enrich writing and remind English speakers there are many other languages in the world. Suum cuique.
Andrew Marshall is Cognito’s deputy CEO. Nos volo ut subsisto usura adeo et latine.