Jim Heffernan column: It’s time to brush up on your Latin

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Jim Heffernan (News Tribune)
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It has come to my undivided attention that many loyal Americans do not understand Latin phrases tossed about willy-nilly in the news as though everyone is running around in Roman togas throwing Saturnalia parties.

Phrases like “quid pro quo,” for example. And casual references to things like Saturnalia (more on which later).

Goodness gracious! Everyone with a third grade education (most of us, I daresay) should know that quid pro quo means, as has been pointed out time and time again recently: You do something for me, and I’ll do something for you, like, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Many of our esteemed politicians, who have been very familiar with quid pro quo for, oh, about 275 years and counting, seemed shocked when an estimated 234 million Americans were not actually familiar with quid pro quo, according to unreliable polling. This might help: You roll around shirtless in poison ivy with another person and 12 hours later, you two need a little quid pro quo.

Of course if you go about rolling round in poison ivy you need a little more than quid pro quo to help you out, no matter who you do it with. But that’s a horse of a different color.


Still, it’s clear that we need to brush up on our Latin. But first, let’s tackle a widely misunderstood French-based phrase that causes restaurant diners so much grief. The French language was derived from Latin, after all, even before the reign of Charles the Bald in the ninth or tenth century or somewhere around then, give or take a century or two.

That would be the very familiar “du jour,” It shows up on menus in fine restaurants, but, unlike what many not versed in Latin think, it is not a food item. Never say to a waiter, “I’ll take a large order of du jour” just because it appears on the menu. As every respectable waiter knows du jour means “of the day.” If you order an item listed as “soup du jour” it means you’re going to leave the restaurant hungry if that’s all you have.

Another very familiar Latin phrase is semper fidelis. As the slogan of the U.S. Marines it means “always faithful” to the Marines if not your spouse. It is often listed as “Semper Fi” to better fit on the baseball caps of ex-Marines.

And of course everyone should know “e pluribus unum” because it’s written on our money. For the record, though, it means “out of the many one” which used to be true of the United States but is difficult to see in our time with all of this quid pro quo business going on, if you catch my drift.

How about “in hoc signo vinces”? When I first encountered that Latin mouthful, it was the slogan on the packages of Pall Mall cigarettes back when I was a teenage smoker for the FBI. Of course it means “by this sign you will conquer.” Conquer what, your lungs?

Also, before it is lost entirely, we should visit a disappearing language sort of derived from Latin before it disappears entirely. I’m talking about Pig Latin. Pig Latin does not refer to swine streaming across our southern border spreading flu to vulnerable Americans. Not by a long shot. Pig Latin was an argot American teenagers used to speak to one another so that their parents and other elders would not understand.

Here’s how it works: You take the first syllable of a word and make it the last while carefully making the last syllable of that word the first. So, according to one dictionary explaining it, the words “chicken soup” come out as “ickenchay oupsay” in pig Latin.

Everybody and her sister used to speak Pig Latin in my youth when they didn’t want adults to understand what they were talking about just like my mother used to speak Swedish to my aunt when she didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about. Even Steven.


At the beginning of today’s opus (a Latin word meaning “work”) I promised to explain Saturnalia to anyone who needs to brush up on their Latin. It was the equivalent of Christmas in ancient Rome, when toga-clad ancient Romans partied, drank wine and, some claim, would even engage in orgies, a Latin-Greek derived word familiar to almost everyone regardless of creed. If you don’t know what an orgy is, don’t get started now.

I leave today with a final Latin phrase—“O tempora, o mores.”— that seems particularly apt these days. Translated it means, “O the times, O the morals.” Not to be preachy.

It is time now for a good bowl of ickenchay oupsay. It’s du jour, right?

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by e-mail at

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at and can be reached by email at
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