Saturday, June 17, 2000


Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000


The law and Latin

English legal terminology is particularly rich in Latinisms. Legal language today is vastly different from the language spoken in a non-legal context. The reliance on Latin phrasing (bona-fide), French loanwords (plaintiff), ceremonial phrasing (signed, sealed and delivered) and conventional terminology (alibi), are the features that distance it from everyday life. Latin terms in legal language are not difficult to master if the origins are known. Here are some Latin terms that are used frequently.

Bona fide and bona fides are often treated as the singular and plural form of the same word. Actually, bona fides literally means ‘good faith’ and is the legal term meaning ‘lack of intent to deceive’; the English faith descends from the Latin fides. Bona fide used as an adjective meaning genuine, comes from the Latin adverbial phrase bona fide which means ‘in good faith’.

Mea culpa is both an admission of culpability and an expression of repentance. It originated as part of the Latin prayer of confession and penitence used in the Roman Catholic Mass. It means literally, ‘through my fault’. Keener repentance still is expressed through mea maxima culpa, through my very great fault. From culpa also came culpable and culprit.

A guardian looking after a child in the absence of parents or a teacher responsible for a child while in school is said to be in loco parentis. In Latin it literally means ‘in place of a parent’; locus meaning place and parent, the noun use of parere or give birth. If only the phrase were applied to teachers commonly, half the ills of our education system would clear up on their own!

In legal proceedings an ex parte injunction is made on behalf of one side only. The phrase means ‘from one part or from one side’ and denotes that an application comes from only one of the parties in the case. Post facto is the past participle of the verb which means ‘do afterwards’. English uses it as ex post facto, meaning ‘formulated or applied retrospectively’, especially with reference to laws.

De facto is used both as an adverb and an adjective. It denotes what is in fact or in practice the case, irrespective of what is legally or should in theory be the case. In Latin it means ‘from the fact’. It is frequently used to designate someone who actually wields power, even though someone else may nominally be in charge. It is often used in direct contrast with de jure which means ‘from the law’, not actually. These days, a live-in lover is often called a de facto spouse.


Hindi has taken many words from Sanskrit but, surprisingly, very few idioms have found their way from Sanskrit to Hindi. It is not as if there is a shortage of these in Sanskrit. Rather, the idioms of classical Sanskrit are quite complex and far-fetched. Borrowing depends to a large extent upon the whims of the user and, in this case, the user finds a striking similarity between Persian and Hindi, if one goes by the number of Persian idioms in Hindi. Old faithfuls like aankh dikhana and pagri uchalna come from Persian.

— Deepti

This feature was published on June 10, 2000