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Interpreting Latin Legal Phrases: Affidavit and a Mensa et Thoro

By John Garger

For the law student uninitiated in the Latin language, understanding these phrases comes down to rote memorization as it pertains to a legal context. Often, the translations of these Latin phrases learned in a legal course of study are incorrect from their literal translations.

As with most professions requiring years of study, law is a field filled with archaic and often confusing terms derived directly from the Latin in the Bible from Wikimedia Commons Medieval, Late, or New Latin periods. Most Latin programs teach the language from the Classical period, the time of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and building of the Coliseum. Over the next eighteen centuries, Latin survived in one incarnation or another finding itself the language of science, law, and the church throughout Europe. Since many of the legal phrases we use today were first used during Latin’s late life, the meanings of many of the words are different from Classical Latin. Consequently, these phrases can be difficult for even the seasoned Latin student. However, modern legal phrases are still an exercise in Latin grammar and an interesting look into language history for the law professional or lay person.

Translate Affidavit

Although similar in sound, many people mispronounce this word by changing the “t” sound to a “d.” In line with traditional Latin spelling, the “t” in affidavit is pronounced just as it is in English. An affidavit is a sworn statement give by a person who has promised that the statement is true to the best of his/her knowledge. The affiant, or person giving the sworn statement, usually signs the statement with a witness present to verify that the affiant signing the statement is also the person offering the statement.

In addition to a witness, another person known as a notary public, also signs and seals the statement to ensure that the parties have adhered to standards necessary for the affidavit to be used by a court as evidence or for other purposes. Unless notarized, no statement may be issued to a court as evidence because the statement can always be claimed to be a work or fiction with no verification of its veracity. Giving false statements on an affidavit open the affiant up to perjury punishable just like a perjurer taking the stand as a witness in a court of law.

As a lesson in Latin grammar, affidavit is a great example of the formation of Latin’s Perfect tense. Latin’s perfect tense is synonymous with English’s Present Prefect tense which denotes actions in the past that happened once. This is in contrast to Latin Imperfect and English’s Simple Past tenses which indicate actions that were ongoing sometime prior to the present.

To form the Perfect tense, use the third principal part of the verb and add the person ending that indicates the person and number of the action desired. The word affidavit derives from the word affido (affidare, affidavit, affidatum) which literally means to “trust to” but is better translated as “to swear an oath.” Affidavit is, therefore, the third-person singular perfect active indicative form of the word affido and can be translated as “he/she/it swore an oath” (or has sworn and oath). Notice that with the lack of noun to indicate the subject of the verb, the gender of the verb is unknown and can, therefore, be translated as either he, she, or it. In many legal texts, the phrase “he has sworn an oath” is given as the proper translation of affidavit. However, the Latin student knows better.

Translate a Mensa et Thoro

Translate a Mensa et Thoro The phrase a mensa et thoro is a legal term usually applied to divorce law. To divorce “a mensa et thoro” is to separate while still remaining legally married. This may be because of religious or moral beliefs where divorce is bad by the laws of theology or norms of a society. Sometimes a couple may reconcile and have the a mensa et thoro agreement dissolved, in which case the couple goes back to being legally married with no special specification or conditions.

a mensa et thoro is a good example of the ablative of place from which used to indicate the location from which something has come. A literal translation of this phrase is “from table and bed” but many legal texts offer the phrase “from bed and board.” Notice that both mensa and thoro are in the ablative case even though mensa is a feminine noun of the first declension and thoro is a masculine noun of the second. Since the ablative of place from which is formed uniformly regardless of the noun’s declension, there is no need to repeat the “a” which means “from” in the from which construction. The word “et” is an indeclinable conjunction akin to English’s “and,” Spanish’s “y,” and French’s “et.”

Practical Uses

As an exercise in Latin grammar, the phrases above illustrate practical uses of the perfect tense and the ablative of place from which. Often, accepted translations of legal terms do not reflect proper Latin grammar but have been changed and misinterpreted over the decades or centuries. This fact gives Latin students an interesting challenge to not only identify the Latin grammar at play but also uncover mistranslation used in modern law. The law student inundated with many Latin phrases is at the mercy of accepted translations of the phrases should he/she lack even the most basic of Latin language training.