Back when I was a relatively new lawyer, I had a boss who wasn’t really up to the job--the kind of guy who nitpicked like a mere manager, rather than acting like a true leader. (It was this guy, in case you’re wondering.)

I wrote a memo for him once in which I used the abbreviation “N.B.” next to a very important point. He called me into his office.

“What the hell is ‘N.B.?’” he asked, accusingly. He wasn’t happy. I was surprised he didn’t know the expression; it’s short for nota bene, which is the Latin phrase for “note well,” and it’s fairly common in legal documents. It suggests simply that the reader should pay special attention to whatever comes next.

Of course, this meant that I had to start working other Latin phrases into my conversations with him. It’s probably not what my high school Latin teacher expected us to use the language for, but I found it empowering.

Some say that Latin is a dead language, but in truth it lives on--especially in the shorter phrases and concepts we often use in modern speech. I like using them--or at least thinking about them--because the act of translating them focuses the mind on their meaning. Here are a few of my favorites:

I. Ceteris paribus

“All other things being equal.” It’s useful when you want to isolate a single issue and focus on it. I studied economics in college, and I had a professor who used this phrase all the time.

II. Caveat venditor

Most of us have heard caveat emptor, which is “buyer beware.” This phrase is its counterpart, “seller beware”--a good reminder for an entrepreneur.

III. Sine qua non

An absolutely necessary component or ingredient. Determination is the sine qua non of entrepreneurship.

IV. Panem et circenses

This one is actually better known now by its English translation: bread and circuses; the idea that many people can be placated by diversions and security, rather than aiming for greatness. (See also, soda and reality TV.)

V. Carpe noctem

You know carpe diem--”seize the day.” This is its companion: “seize the night.” It could be a party anthem, but it’s more about being willing to put in whatever time is necessary to achieve a worthy goal.

VI. Carpe vinum

This one is better for party time: “Seize the wine.”

VII. Aurea mediocritas

The golden mean: a Greek phrase that lasted into Roman times.

VIII. Audentes fortuna iuvat

“Fortune favors the bold.” People who think things can’t be done are often interrupted by others who are actually doing them.

IX. Semper fidelis

“Always faithful,” the motto of the U.S. Marine Corps. Even if you’re not a Marine, it’s good to know this one and what it means.

X. Semper paratus

“Always prepared,” the motto of both the U.S. Coast Guard and (in Anglicized format) the Boy Scouts.

XI. Acta non verba

“Actions, not words.” It happens to be the motto of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

XII. Mea culpa

My apology; my error. To really emphasize it, go for “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

XIII. Ad infinitum

Thirteen phrases is a good start, but the truth is that this list could be a lot longer--on toward infinity. Contact me or share in the comments if you have some other favorites.

Published on: Jul 10, 2015
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