20 Latin Words for Not-So-Lovely Things

Cloaca just ... sounds better.
Cloaca just ... sounds better. / grapegeek/iStock via Getty Images Plus

In their timeless Elements of Style, Strunk and write that “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” It’s good advice. (Sorry: advice has Latin roots. Let’s try again.) It’s a good tip. The oldest English words are often short, strong, and easy to understand. They get your thoughts out there in a forthright, and yes, lively way.

But not everything in life calls for lively, earthy words. Sometimes the dreadful things we must suffer can seem a little less grim when they have the sweet ring—nay, the dulcet tones of euphonious polysyllabic Latin appellations. Notice, for example, the title of Strunk and White’s book. By using two words with Latin roots they’ve made something as unpleasant as a grammar and usage manual sound chic. Imagine if they had taken their own advice and called it Bits to Know about Writing instead of The Elements of Style.

With that in mind, here are 20 more lovely Latin words for life’s least pleasant things.

1. Aerumna // Hardship

Don’t let life’s aerumnae get you down. English absorbed a lot of other Latin words for trouble: adversity, calamity, distress, tribulation. But aerumna escaped notice.

2. Amaritudo // Bitterness

Amaritudo looks like it has to do with love, but it’s actually the feeling you might get if you were betrayed by your amour.

3. Cloaca // Sewer

Just because it’s full of you-know-what doesn’t mean it deserves an ugly name. Though it’s not what we call our sewers, English did take up the word cloaca in a scientific context: It’s the anatomical term for the posterior orifice of birds, fish, and monotremes like the platypus.

4. Contumelia // Abuse

Though it sounds like it might grow in a garden, contumelia actually refers to cruel speech or even physical violence. Hamlet used it in his “To be, or not to be” speech (“the proud man’s contumely”), but most of us probably had to look up what he meant.

5. Excandescentia // Budding Anger

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the most eloquent of all Romans, once took pains to describe the many types of vexation. A desire for revenge he called anger (ira), chronic anger he called hatred (odium), and that feeling of heat you get before you blow a gasket he called excandescentia.

6. Fastidium // Disgust

In Latin, fastidium means to feel nauseated by something. But it sounds so upright that its English-adjective cousin fastidious has become a term of respect for meticulous work.

7. Graveolentia // A Rank Smell

English uses the Latin odor as a polite word for a stink. But if you want to describe an offensively fetid smell in Latin, you have to use graveolentia.

8. Inquinamentum // Filth

There seem to be a dozen English words for gross matter (crud, dirt, grime, muck, scum, smut) and they all have one syllable and a percussive beat. Wouldn’t the world be more pleasant if, upon encountering uncleanliness, we simply sighed to see such inquinamentum?

9. Letum // A Violent Death

There’s death (mors) and then there’s death (letum or nex). It’s the kind of death at which the Romans excelled: being killed in some gruesome way.

10. Limus // Slime

Before medieval Latin gave English the lemon (limo) and the many zesty, clean-sounding words that go along with it (lemon-fresh, lemongrass, lemonade), there was limus. Thus, for an ancient Roman, when life gave you limus, you couldn’t make lemonade … but you at least had a cute word for a gross substance.

11. Madidus // Moist

Perhaps the most-hated word in the English language, moist sounds decidedly less-gross when it's madidus.

12. Naevulus // Wart

We all have them. Why should they be given such a vile name? Use naevulus instead.

13. Palus // Swamp

English has bog, fen, marsh, mire, and slough, none of which sound like worthy names for the vital ecosystems of our avian and amphibian friends. But palus does.

14. Pituita // Spit

OK, the Latin word mucus is pretty gross. But its cousin, pituita, is delightfully genteel.

15. Podex // Bum

Latin furnished English with many polite words for the naughty bits of the human body, but missed podex, a simple, elegant term for one’s butt that rhymes with the word for book (codex).

16. Quisquiliae // Garbage

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes. So why not give it a lyrical name like quisquiliae instead of the English chaff, dreck, dross, or garbage?

17. Sterculinum // A Pile of Poop

If you want to insult someone’s work like an ancient Roman, you can do so by calling it a steaming sterculinum.

18. Temulentia // Drunkenness

Latin, like English, has many words for the besotted state (madidus, above, is one of them). The sweet-sounding temulentia was relatively rare, but was used by Valerius Maximus to describe the passed-out drunk state of a group of rowdy musicians.

19. Vilitas // Worthlessness

To English ears it sounds like a virtue from a college motto (“Lux et Vilitas!”). But vilitas really means something so cheap that it’s worthless.

20. Vomitus // Puke

The word vomit is truly ugly, a testament to English’s ability to turn a lilting Latin noun into something rude. The ancient Romans never heard vomitus quite that way and used it to form their word for the exit: vomitorium.