Words You Never Knew Were Latin!
  • 3-minute read
  • 7th May 2018

Words You Never Knew Were Latin!

Some of you may know someone who shows off by dropping Latin phrases into conversation. But Latin isn’t all about sounding pretentious. Hundreds of common English words have Latin origins. We even spell some words the same as the Romans used to!

In this blog post, then, we’re looking at a few English terms that you may already use in your written work without realizing where they come from.

1. Campus Latin

Academic writing is full of obscure Latin words. But there are some more familiar terms you’ll hear on campus that come from Latin. One of these, in fact, is “campus.”

In Roman times, this word simply meant “field.” It was first used for a college campus to describe a field near the College of New Jersey (now better known as Princeton University) in 1774.

The original college campus.
(Photo: Filipe Fortes/flickr)

Other Latin terms that have found a place in academia include “thesis” (which originally meant “to set down”) and “calculus” (which comes from a small pebble used for counting).

2. Did Romans Drive Cars?

The Romans were better known for chariots than motor vehicles, but they did invent the word “motor.” This meant “mover,” so it was later applied to any machine that supplies power.

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Turtle-powered chariots never caught on.

And given that we use the word “motor” in relation to cars, it is appropriate that “petroleum” also comes from Latin. To be specific, it’s a medieval combination of the words for “rock” (petra) and “oil” (oleum). But we wouldn’t recommend asking for “rock oil” at the gas station.

3. Cinnamon on Asparagus

Food has changed a lot since ancient Rome, but we do still use some Latin terms when we’re hungry! These include “asparagus,” “citrus,” and “cinnamon.” In addition, if you enjoy the traditional approach of combining ingredients while making a meal, you might follow a “recipe.”

4. The End of the Year

The Roman calendar only had ten months to begin with, so it was different from ours. But we do get our month names from Latin, including three that are unchanged: October, November, and December. As the names suggest, these were originally the eighth, ninth, and tenth months in the year.

Going from this image, we’re guessing December was the month of snake stretching.
(Photo: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia)

Later, however, Julius and Augustus (now July and August) were introduced after June (or Junius as it was then). Despite their names, October, November, and December thus became the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year respectively. This makes it even stranger that these terms are still spelled the same as they were more than 2000 years ago!

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