ESSENTIALS

16

One Good Quote in a Dead Language

Sometimes a situation calls for an incomprehensible quote. At those moments, semper paratus.
Photo: Till Niermann

Emperor Augustus

In times of great strain or moments of quiet bitterness, there is nothing to salve your wounds or prove your wit better than a well-chosen quote in a language no one has spoken for centuries. A choice and incomprehensible expression can convince your friends you’re smart and your enemies you’re arrogant (and also smart). What’s more, you don’t have to know the language, just how to pronounce it.

While obvious, Latin is also the most effective option. Not only did the Romans seem to have more wit than those dour, Aramaic-speaking Canaanites, but any reasonably well-educated English (or French, Spanish or Italian) speaker should be able to catch your drift. If you have a difficult time with phonetic memorization, pick a versatile saying like Acta est fabula, plaudite! [The play is over, applaud!]. The last words of Emperor Augustus (duh), they can be muttered sotto voce at the end of an interminable meeting as you push back your chair, or just before your front door closes behind the boring couple who insist on inviting themselves over for Sunday dinner even though they know you watch Mad Men on Sundays. The expression is also handy for moments requiring great gravitas, including tripping on the sidewalk, divorce settlements, and being forced to remedy an open fly in public. Build your own stable of favorites, or take one of ours.

Selected useful phrases in Latin:

Acta est fabula, plaudite!—The play is over, applaud!
Ad astra per aspera
—To the stars through difficulty
Conlige suspectos semper habitos
—Round up the usual suspects
Nemo saltat sobrius nisi forte insanit
—No one dances sober unless he’s insane
Nemo malus felix
—No bad man is lucky
Illegitimi non carborundum*
—Don’t let the bastards get you down

*This quote is doubly impressive. Although it’s not real Latin, it was the personal motto of US General “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell in WWII, and that’s good enough for us.

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  1. Chris says:

    I use this tactic with the one toast I’ll ever use when out drinking with friends. Its a two parter because the translation of the Latin is the real punchline.

    “Bibamus, moriendum est.”

    Translates to:

    “Drink up, death is near.”

  2. Greg says:

    Aut inveniam viam aut faciam – I will either find a way or I make one.

  3. Eoghan says:

    Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit- sometimes we will look back on [even] these [things] and smile/laugh

  4. Alexis says:

    SoHvaD pagh vIjatlh, tera’ngan! – I have nothing to say to you human!

    Klingon counts, right?

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  6. jason says:

    NOW we’re talkin!

  7. Matthew says:

    In the John Waters movie Polyester, when the mildly retarded housecleaner Cuddles inherits some money she starts using the french expression “enchante” and similar pretentious phrases to impress people with her education and (in-)breeding. It is brilliant comedy. Take this advice and regurgitate quotes from books you’ve never read in a language you don’t understand–you’re sure to impress Cuddles, if you meet her, and probably be as funny as Cuddles to everyone else (or at least, seem like an insecure fraud).

    Hint: The best poet/writer of all time wrote in English. You might have even read his plays. Read ‘em again and try to remember the parts that you like. You might learn something, and you can actually be well read rather than faking it.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “Alea iacta est”

    The die has been cast.

    These were Caesar’s famous words uttered just before he crossed the Rubicon.

  9. Andy says:

    Whenever someone spouts off some Latin that requires that he immediately translate it for everyone else in the room because it’s not common enough to have been absorbed into the English lexicon, I usually respond with “whatever is said in Latin seems profound.”

    There’s a way of saying that in Latin, but I just say it in English because I don’t speak Latin and I haven’t studied the Classics, but usually has the pompous ass who’s reciting Latin maxims hasn’t either. If you want to share some bit of Roman wit and/or wisdom, that’s perfectly fine, but unless you’re speaking to a room full of Classicists, just say it in English.

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