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The Secret Diary of Mrs A.

Mrs A, an English teacher, is a regular feature of our pages. In this issue, Europe, she uses in her diary a number of Latin expressions. If you need any help understanding them, just place the mouse over the purple ball .


‘Errarum humanum est’ or ‘to err is human’


15th October, Friday morning


The end of the week seems even more dreadful than its beginning. The flu continues to take its toll. Half the staff members are on sick leave and the student population virtually ‘decimated’. Even Rychu, our PE teacher, normally the symbol of good health, has been absent for 10 days now. Replacements and hasty decisions turn the common room into a madhouse. Yesterday, Pani Beata, our biology teacher, was asked to have Russian with class III a. She was almost in tears. The Head, though, does his best to create an illusion that the school functions as normal and the classes take place. He’s even managed to arrange a lecture in the auditoriumthe part of a theatre or concert hall where the people who are watching sit for everybody present. The guest speaker is going to be a historian from our local university and the subject – European heritage: factors that unite rather than divide.


15th October, late morning


I was genuinely interested in the topic. The more so that my class is to prepare a project about the European Union. Unfortunately, I had to keep an eye on the back rows, where the students’ attention was divided between the latest Oriflame catalogue (the female group) and some motoring magazines (males). Half a year to their Matura exams and what are they doing? Wasting a precious opportunity to learn something fascinating, thrilling, really breath-taking – European history!!! But, contrary to my expectations, I myself couldn’t fully concentrate on the lecture.  I remember only this:


“The roots of European identity may be found in the following elements: Greek philosophy, Latin and the Roman law, and Christianity.”


Was I a fool to imagine the liberal values of the Western world to be the most unifying factor? Or did I miss it in the lecture? Anyway, just after the lecture the Head informed me that I had to replace Pan Bogdan (10 days’ leave) and have a lesson with my class, III c, a lesson that will consolidate their knowledge from the lecture. It would be good to elaborate a little on the issues raised by the historian. For a split second I thought the Head wanted me to teach them religion and expand on the topic of Christianity. Panic seized me and I started to go through in my head the ten commandments and the cardinal sins. Unnecessarily. Apparently, there are people among us better suited for the job. My role was .... to have a Latin lesson. Pan Bogdan is a Latin teacher after all. ‘Can’t I have English with them?’, I asked demurely. ‘Only if you combine it with Latin and revise the lecture’, was his response, ‘or you might also try Greek philosophy’, he added with a nasty smile. ‘With pleasure, if we have Plato’s The SymposiumA meeting or conference for the public discussion of some topic especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations in the library’, I dared him. ‘Let’s stick to Latin, shall we?’, was his response. Does it mean he actually knows what subject Plato discusses in his dialogue? I wonder.


15th October, later in the day.


During the lunch break I tried to devise a plan how to combine Latin, English and the information from the lecture which I didn’t remember. All I could do was to turn in my head various Latin expressions from my student’s days: alma mater'benign mother', the phrase applied by students to refer to their university, gaudeamus igiturlet us rejoice, the first words of the song that is traditionally sung by students’ choirs to open the new academic year, magisterin Latin “teacher”, “master”, in Poland an academic degree after (usually) five years of study, filiain Latin “daughter”, in Polish used in the meaning of “a branch of an institution”, anno dominiin the year of our Lord, pater noster“our father”, the first words of the Lord’s prayer, in Polish used in the meaning of “a strong reprimand”, de factoin point of fact, ex libris“from the books” , in Poland used to refer to a decorative picture bearing the name of the owner, ad hoc“for this purpose”, not planned in advance, ad infinitum“to infinity”, forever, without ending ..... and so on and on ...... ad nauseam“to the point when one becomes disgusted”, so many times as to be very annoying or boring. Strangely enough, the phrase that kept plaguing me was mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpaby my fault. Indeed the time has come to repent for my sins and regret that not more effort had been put into mastering Latin.


Originally, my plan was to devote the lesson with III c to some Latin expressions still used in English. I even started making a list: panaceasomething that is considered a cure for any problems or diseases, credoany system of principles or beliefs, bona fide“with good faith”, real, not false, without any deception, alibi“elsewhere”, an allegation on the part of the accused that he/she was somewhere else when the crime was committed, alias“otherwise”, 1. a false name used by someone who is doing something criminal, 2. a way of stating someone’s nickname or another name, per seby itself, ante meridiembefore mid-day, post mortem“after death”, a medical examination of a dead body to establish the cause of death, modus vivendia way of living, memorabiliathings to be remembered, memento moriremember that you must die, referenduma vote in which people are asked whether they agree or not with a particular policy, emeritusused with a professional title to indicate 'honourably retired from assigned duties',  .... Indeed, so many –us endings: plus“more”, used to show that one number or a quantity is added to another, minusused to show that one number is being subtracted from another, bonussomething good that you do not expect to get, an advantage, consensusgeneral agreement, fungusa mushroom, cactus ....any spiny succulent plant, cactus Hang on, this one’s Greek, I think. Anyway, the list was getting rather long. But suddenly I had a better idea.


15th October, the Latin lesson with class III c


Equipped with half a dozen dictionaries and books of quotations that I secretly took from the library (the librarian is sick of course and I had to bribe the secretary to give me the key) I started the lesson in an optimistic mood. There were only 10 students present (out of 31).


The task I gave them was this: Choose a Latin maxim which you find appropriate for contemporary times and justify your choice. I suspected that half the class would hand in one sentence more or less to the effect: “Today my mind is a tabula rasa“a blank tablet” , a smooth tablet on which nothing is written; according to John Lock’s philosophy, the state of a human mind without any ideas or concepts which is natural and prior to gaining experience so I can’t really think.” But I was wrong. By the end of the lesson everybody had produced something and we had just enough time to read their answers. This is what they have written: 


“I can say that it’s really easy for me to choose the best maxim. In a sense, I am ‘surrounded by Latin at home’. I don’t mean that my parents swear. The English say in such situations ‘pardon my French’, we say in Poland ‘to use Latin’. I only want to mention that my Dad studied Latin at school and each time he watches a reality program on TV he exclaims O tempora! O mores! I know it means ‘O the times and the manners!’, which simply states the fact that the society is going to the dogs. The last time he made that comment was when in the Expedition Robinson they killed a snake. Now I’ve read in the book that the phrase was originally used by Cicero and it referred to lax morals. So if morals and manners were already that bad in ancient Rome, why are people constantly amazed at their lack? At least my father is. Or perhaps he just remembers one sentence from his Latin lessons. Which makes me even more positive that it’s the maxim I should choose to memorize too.”



I strongly believe that a Latin sentence that could be the motto for today’s world is: de gustibus non est disputandum, which means ‘there’s no arguing about tastes’ or ‘there’s no accounting for taste’. In other words, it says that people differ in what they like or dislike and there’s nothing wrong with this difference. One person may like hard rock, another one can prefer chill-out music or hip-hop. Our preferences can also apply to the domain of fashion, food, art, literature and so on. I think that if everybody understood and accepted the fact that we as human beings have a right to be different, there would be more tolerance in the world. It’s a pity that most parents constantly criticise their children’s taste in clothes or music. They tell us that what we listen to sounds horrible or that we can’t dress in this or that. I really hate such attitudes.”



“It’s a real disaster that for the contemporary world the most appropriate adage seems to be: pecunia non olet, which means ‘money has no smell’. It refers to the fact that people want to have money and don’t really care if they earn it honestly or get it in a deceitful way or even through bribes. The only thing that matters is that they have it. It makes me sick when I hear about corrupt politicians, businessmen or clerks. But what really infuriates me is that today people with money can have everything. You can even buy examination topics, diplomas and all kinds of certificates – it’s enough to search the Internet to find dozens and dozens of offers. Some students buy their MA thesis in this way. I don’t blame just those who want to buy. If there were no people ready to sell such ‘services’ there wouldn’t be any potential buyers. It’s really sad that it was like that even in ancient Rome. Of course, there was no Internet, but to say pecunia non olet they must have felt this way.”




“I would like to be able to say that I believe in what Descartes said: cogito, ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am.’) I know, of course, that he was French and is considered the father of modern philosophy, so he didn’t live in ancient Rome and yet he said it in Latin, which proves the point that was made in today’s lecture about how much we owe to this language. What I like in Descartes’ statement is his conviction as to the power of reason (and thought). But I think that the contemporary world has proved more than once that human beings are thoughtless, senseless creatures. There’s so much conflict and destruction in the world which is against all reason that it’s just incredible. So, much as I admire the sentence cogito, ergo sum, I still choose as something more relevant the maxim fortes fortuna adiuvat (‘fortune favours the strong ones’) because in today’s world nobody likes the loser. The strong rule.”




“I’m very sorry but I’m very bad at Latin. Even when I have all the dictionaries I still can’t make much sense of the symbols and contractions. I’m especially bad at grammar so I can’t conjugate. But I have chosen a very short sentence from the list of classical quotations because I think it sounds nice and it seems funny. This sentence is fiat lux. It is so short that I can easily remember it and it reminds me of two words that are used in Polish - ‘fiat’ – the make of a car – and ‘lux’ – meaning ‘great’ or ‘superb’. So it would be really good if the sentence meant ‘a Fiat is a great car’ . Objectively, it’s nonsense, because there are lots and lots of cars which are better, but it’s a nice thought. My grandfather promised to give me his small Fiat when I get my driving licence. If I have to make the sentence appropriate for contemporary times, I suggest Porsche lux. The book says that fiat lux means ‘let there be light’. I cannot think why somebody said something like that. Maybe it’s  proof that they didn’t have electricity.”




“I’m fully convinced that the best classical maxim that can become a guiding principle for today’s generation is omnia vincit amor, which means ‘love conquers all things’. It should be especially important in the lives of young people. Today too much is said about the material aspects of life. People are obsessed with making a career and accumulating wealth and they often forget about feelings and emotions. If there’s true love in the family and human relationships, then, I believe, all conflicts and problems will sooner or later be overcome.”



“I don’t need to study thick books to know that the best Latin quotation that applies to modern people is carpe diem – seize the day, make good use of the present. Mr Bogdan told us it comes from Horace’s Odes and I think the poet was absolutely right to teach us that we should enjoy the present moment and not worry about the future. Life is too short to worry constantly – will I pass my matura exams? will I get to university? will my parents let me go to the disco? I always tell myself: carpe diem. So when you saw me this morning looking at the Oriflame catalogue rather than attending to the European lecture, it only meant that I’m taking my Latin lessons seriously.”



“I choose the sentence: ubi bene, ibi patria (Where it is well, it is our country), which I believe may be treated as a comment and a kind of warning now that Poland is a member state of the European Union. The maxim illustrates the simple fact that people want to lead a decent life and will try to find a country that makes such a life possible. A lot is said today about young Poles considering emigration and the fact that so many well educated people may choose to work abroad. I think it is quite natural that given the choice of barely surviving on unemployment benefit or looking for some work opportunities abroad, most people would choose the second option. There’s nothing unpatriotic about leaving one’s homeland in search of a better future. Ancient Romans already knew it.”




“I like the sentence: in vino veritas. (There is truth in wine) Tonight I’ll try to persuade my Mum that the time has come to let me know the truth. In our cellar there are five bottles of home-made fruit wine that Uncle George brought us last November and perhaps it’s time mother understood that her son should be allowed some truth. I’m not going to tell her what the book says about the Latin maxim, but I know that the true meaning is ‘the truth comes out when people are under the influence of alcohol.’ Perhaps tonight I’ll check it. I will be allowed some truth and my Mum will be under the influence.”



“My favourite Latin quotation is: mens sana in corpore sano (sound mind in sound body). I even have it on a poster in my room and gave an extra copy of the poster to Pan Dzidek, who runs the gym in our neighbourhood. I attend regularly three times a week and work out for at least three hours. Apart from that I go to the swimming pool every Saturday and play football on Sunday mornings. Physical prowess is a great value and both ancient Greeks and Romans knew it. Mr Richard, our PE teacher, says that looking at me he has a feeling that his work is not a wasted effort. I know he’s right. Unfortunately, my parents tell me that concentrating on the development of my body I forget the development of my mind. They’re wrong. My mind is a part of my body, it does not exist without it and the Latin maxim supports my opinion.”




When the bell rang and the lesson was over I gave a sigh of relief. Finis coronat opus, (The end crowns the work) I thought to myself. The Head should be pleased. We combined Latin and English and some students even managed to refer to the topic of the lecture. Should it really matter that not all conclusions which they made after studying the books were such that the Head would encourage? After all, errarum humanum est. (to err is human)

Follow-up Activities

  1. For a quiz based on the idioms used in the diary, click here.
  2. For the full list of idioms used in the diary, click here.

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