The lawyer or doctor in his or her 38th professional year often will say he or she is still “practicing” law or “practicing” medicine.
One might ask, “You mean that after all of those years, you still haven’t learned your profession?” This use of “practicing” is one example of the continuing influence of Latin in the English language. Although today, “to practice” is generally understood as learning a skill by repeated performance, in medieval times, altered spellings of the Latin word, “practicare,” meant to carry on a profession.
Dating back to the founding of Rome in 753 B.C. and seemingly now a relic, Latin remains a lively part of the English language and many other languages. There are many common Latin words and phrases in the English language. Here is a sampling: ad hoc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, alias, alibi, alma mater, antebellum, audio, bona fide, caveat emptor (buyer beware), de facto, ergo, emeritus, et cetera, ex post facto, habeas corpus (deliver the body), in absentia, in memoriam, in toto, ipso facto, magna cum laude, magnum opus, modus operandi, nolo contendere, non sequitur, per annum, per capita, per diem, per se, persona non grata, pro rata, quasi, quid pro quo, quorum, rigor mortis, semper fidelis, status quo, summa cum laude, tabula rasa, verbatim, veto and vice versa. One hardly notices they are Latin.
The historical influence of Latin goes far beyond these. Plutarch’s wonderful biographies of famous Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators and statesmen – originally written in Greek – were preserved and translated into Latin and eventually English.
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Plutarch’s “Lives” was a favorite of Harry Truman. In assessing the accomplishments and failings of great individuals, and in words that might apply to any reasonably honest and decent individual depending on the seriousness and circumstances of such person’s past errors or crimes, Plutarch wrote: “Since it is difficult, or rather impossible, to represent a man’s life as entirely spotless and free from blame, we should use the best chapters in it to build up the most complete picture and regard this as the true likeness. Any errors or crimes, on the other hand, which may tarnish a man’s career and may have been committed out of passion or political necessity, we should regard rather as a lapse from a particular virtue than as the product of some innate vice. We must not dwell on them too emphatically in our history, but should rather show indulgence to human nature for its inability to produce a character which is absolutely good and uncompromisingly dedicated to virtue.”
The famous English lawyer Sir Edward Coke coined the phrase, “domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium” – a man’s house is his castle. Following the passing of Queen Elizabeth, Coke in 1603 famously prosecuted Sir Walter Raleigh for treason against the king, declaring Raleigh to be a “vile viper.”
The great philosopher and mathematician Leibnitz wrote, “…(I)t is well from time to time to accustom ourselves to collect our thoughts and to raise ourselves above the present tumult of impressions, to go forth, so to speak, from the place where we are, to say to ourselves: Dic cur hic? respice finem, where are we then? … let us come to the point.”
Despite the chaos and frivolity of today’s unprecedented tumult of daily impressions, Latin still allows solemn reflection upon a fundamental principle of law.
Many years ago, a man was arrested for public exposure in the mountains. When the case came before a federal judge, the judge recited this limerick, “There once was a man named Rex, who had a miniscule organ of sex. When jailed for exposure, he said with composure, de minimis non curat lex.”
In other words, the law does not trouble with trifles.
Daniel O. Jamison is an attorney with Dowling Aaron Inc. in Fresno. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org