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Caveat, Certiorari, and Corpus Juris: Translating Common Latin Phrases

By John Garger

Latin lives on in English through the many phrases still in use today. Translating common Latin phrases is a lesson in good Latin grammar.

Throughout the various periods of Latin language history, the language has changed very little grammatically making translation from one period to another a lesson in quirks, shifting conventions, and alteration of lexicon. However, short Latin phrases still in use by English speakers oddly make as much grammatical sense in the Classical period as they do in periods that are more recent. The result is an opportunity for Latin students to explore and challenge themselves to figure out these miniature puzzles of Latin grammar.

In no other area as law has Latin had such an enormous impact. Latin phrases fill the legal profession contributing to the legalese or “legal talk” that make contracts and official legal procedures so difficult to understand by the uninitiated in either law or Latin. The three phrases discussed below represent good examples of three grammatical constructions. Demonstrated are the subjunctive, the infinitive, and the nominative-genitive pairing so often found in Latin.

Translating Caveat

You may recall from a previous article that the phrase caveat emptor is appropriately translated as “let the buyer beware.” Common in English, this Latin phrase places the responsibility to watch out for what is being purchased on the buyer and not the seller. Caveat is a good example of the subjunctive mood.

Recall that there are five major aspects to Latin verbs. The “person” answers who, the “number” answers how many, the “tense” answers when, and the “voice” answer to what or whom the action of the verb is directed. The fifth aspect, the mood, answers how the action is conveyed; it answers whether the verb is simply being indicated, is given as a command, or is a theoretical action that may or may not occur. It is this last mood that Caveat demonstrates.

One of the difficulties of learning the forms of the subjunctive mood is that most Latin programs naturally start with the first conjugation. First conjugation subjunctive verbs are funny in that they are regularly formed as any other verb other than the addition of a new letter, the letter –e–, which separates them from the indicative mood. For example:

  • amat becomes amet
  • amamus becomes amemus
  • amant becomes ament

Consequently, Latin students come to assume that the letter –e– is an indicator of the subjunctive mood. Caveat is the subjunctive form of the word “cavet” meaning he/she/it is bewaring. Notice “cavet” is similar in form to a first conjugation subjunctive verb. The addition of the –a– in caveat is the indicating letter that the verb is in the subjunctive mood. In fact, other than the first conjugation, the letter –a– is the indicating letter for the subjunctive mood in all other conjugations. This lesson taught by the word caveat is a reminder that Latin is the language of exceptions which is why English speakers consider Latin so difficult to learn.

Translating Certiorari

The English infinitive is typically identified by coupling the word “to” with the verb. The phrase “to err is human, to forgive divine” makes use of two infinitive verbs. In Latin, the infinitive is the second principle part of the verb. However, the second principle part is only the present active infinitive. Most Latin verbs have both active and passive forms for the present, perfect, and future tenses although there are no passive future forms.

Certiorari is the present passive infinitive of the word certiorare that means “show” or “prove.” In its present passive form, “certiorari” may be translated as “to be shown.” Notice the shift from the active to the passive voice with the unsupplied subject as the receiver rather than the doer of the action. In legal circles, a writ of certiorari is a formal requirement of a lower court by a higher court to provide the records of a case for review. Generally, a higher court requests these records when the procedures of the lower court have been called into question.

Translating Corpus Juris

The Latin word corpus is a neuter noun literally meaning “body” but the word can also be taken metaphorically to mean body as in a group of people. From this word, English speakers get corporal, corporation, and corpse. As a neuter noun, corpus has similar forms for both the nominative and accusative singular cases. In this case, however, corpus is the subject of the phrase and is in its nominative form.

Juris is the genitive form of the word “ius” meaning law. Recall that consonant –i– was changed to a –j– in the seventeenth century during the New Latin period. This phrase is an excellent example of a nominative-genitive phrase pairing. In its genitive form, juris takes a possessive form answering the question of ownership. Taken together, corpus juris literally means “body of law” or “law’s body” with the former translation more familiar to English speakers.People such as the Romans, the English, the Americans, etc. use this phrase to represent the collection of laws in place at a given time. It does not refer to laws in general but to specific laws held by a nation, a state, or local law system.

An Opportunity

Translating common Latin phrases is a unique opportunity to explore the grammatical quirks of the Latin language. They are sometimes simple and sometimes complicated because they are short with no contextual clues as to the intended meaning of the phrase. In the examples above, it is easy to see that phrases demonstrate a variety of Latin grammar in spite of their brevity. The subjunctive mood, the present passive infinitive, and the common nominative-genitive phrase pairing are all pointed out in these examples. The result is a lesson in grammar diversity.