14 Latin Words Hiding in Plain Sight
By John Kelly
Latin has left a massive footprint on the English lexicon: According to some estimates, 60 percent of its vocabulary ultimately comes from the language. English’s Latin derivatives come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from equality to grandiloquent to quid pro quo. Academic and abstract, many of these borrowings feel very Latin-y. But there are a number of borrowings so ingrained in the English language that we no longer even recognize that they’ve been lifted straight out of Latin.
If you tell someone to exit the motorway, you’re telling them the third-person singular present indicative form of the irregular exeo: “he/she/it goes out.” That’s right: exit is just a Latin verb. English started using it in the early 16th century for stage directions in plays, as seen in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Interest is another Latin verb hiding in plain sight. In Latin, it means “it is important,” literally “to be between,” which might help explain its early application in English for legal and business transactions. Its general association of attention and curiosity doesn’t emerge until the 1770s.
With its conjugations and declensions, Latin can seem intimidating to learn. But it’s as simple as two plus two equals four. No, really: Plus is a Latin preposition. It means “more.” The convention of using it for addition, though, comes about in medieval commerce.
Like plus, minus was used for subtraction starting in the Middle Ages. It means “less” in Latin and is formed on the comparative adjective, minor, another Latin word easy to overlook in everyday English.
The earliest minor in English was a Franciscan monk. St. Francis dubbed his order Fratres Minores, the “Lesser Brothers,” to hood themselves with humility. It’s been used to signify “less than” and someone “less than full age” since the mid 1500s.
Major is major to minor: It’s Latin for “greater.” It also could mean an “adult” or “elder” in that language, which additionally explains minor’s meaning of “younger than the age of the majority.” We’ve been referring to academic majors in U.S. universities since the 1890s via a student’s “greater” focus of study.
Via, an English preposition “by way of,” is the Latin ablative case of via, a “way” or a “road.” Attested in reference to routes by the 1770s, via extended to a broader instrumentality, “by means of,” come the 1930s. It’s less obvious in obvious: This is from the Latin obvius, as something “in the way” is hard to miss.
You don’t want to be in the way of flatus: This term for flatulence literally means “a blowing” in Latin.
If your flatus is particularly bad, you should see a doctor stat, or “immediately.” Shortened from the Latin adverb statim, this “immediately” was first used in 19th-century medicine for a drug or procedure to be administered right away.
A doctor is a “teacher” in Latin. The early doctors in English were religious teachers. By the end of the 1300s, we see doctors—who holding the highest degree at a university, hence a Ph.D., or Doctor of Philosophy—of law and medicine.
Speaking of law, attorneys issue fiats, or “sanctions.” Like exit and interest, fiat is a Latin verb. It means “let it be done” and was originally a sort of formula, introducing what the authority was so sanctioning. The FIAT you drive, however, is an acronym: Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, or “Italian Automobiles Factory, Turin.”
FIAT cars may not be a Latin word, but Audis are. Audi is an imperative verb meaning “Hear!” As the story goes, due to a previous trademark, Audi founder, August Horch, wasn’t able to name his company Horch, which means Hark! in German, but the son of one of his business partners, who was studying Latin, offered its Latin equivalent instead.
The Latin verb audire, source of Audi, is also seen in the prefix (and now noun) audio. Early TV inventors in 1934 needed a visual equivalent. The prefix audio-, which also looks like audio (“I hear”), thus helped inspire video, which means “I see.”
By the 1880s, English hopped on tandem, or two-seater, bicycles. But a century earlier, a tandem was originally a carriage drawn by two horses, one in front of the other as opposed to side by side. Word historians think it originated as a pun: It means “at length” in Latin. Latin used it in reference to time (“at long last”), but 18th-century jokesters noticed that a tandem buggy was just so much longer than their side-by-side counterparts. Latin: cracking hilarious jokes in English right under our noses.