How to Read a Latin Dictionary
Ursula Georges, alias Ursula filia Georgii, alias Ursula Whitcher
A Dictionary Entry
Using a Latin dictionary can be daunting. Here, for instance, is the beginning of the entry for honestas in A Latin Dictionary by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. (This dictionary may be found online at the Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.)
honestas, -atis, f. [honestus] , honorableness.
I. (Acc. to honestus, I.) Honorable consideration which a man enjoys, honor, reputation, character, respectability, credit, opp. to turpitudo (class.; cf.: existimatio, dignitas).
A. Lit.: quid est honestas nisi honor perpetuus ad aliquem secundo populi rumore delatus. Lact. 3, 8, fin.: unde pudor, continentia, fuga turpitudinis, appetentia laudis et honestatis? Cic. Rep. 1, 2 ; cf.: fugiendae turpitudinis adipiscendaeque honestatis causa, id. Tusc. 2, 27, 66 ; Gell. 1, 3, 23 sq.: nihil esse in vita magnopere expetendum nisi laudem atque honestatem, Cic. Arch. 6, 14 ; cf.: omnia, quae putant homines expetenda, honestas, gloria, tranquillitas animi atque jucunditas, id. Lael. 22, 84 ; id. Phil. 7, 5, 14: cogita, ea nobis erepta esse, quae hominibus [p. 861] non minus quam liberi cara esse debent, honestatem, dignitatem, honores omnes, id. Fam. 4, 5, 2: quas familias honestatis amplitudinisque gratia nomino,on account of their character, id. Rosc. Am. 6, 15 : honestate spoliatus, id. Rab. Post. 16, 44 ; cf.: omni jure atque honestate interdictus, Q. Metell. ap. Gell. 17, 2, 7: fautor infimi generis hominum, odio alienae honestatis, Liv. 1, 47, 11 : honestatem omnem amittere,consideration, respect, Cic. Rosc. Am. 39, 114 : in eoque (officio) et colendo sita vitae est honestas omnis et in negligendo turpitudo, id. Off. 1, 2, 4 ; Gell. 1, 3, 24: honestati alicujus convenire (with subj. clause), Paul. Sent. 3, 5, 2.--In plur. (= honores): ceteris ante partis honestatibus atque omni dignitate fortunaque aliquem privare, Cic. Mur. 40, 87 .--
This article is an introduction to the Latin language, aimed at someone with a Latin-English/ English-Latin dictionary in hand. It ends with tricks for constructing grammatically correct mottoes in a sixteenth-century style, without knowing Latin grammar!
Word Endings, Not Word Order
In English, word order conveys meaning: "The goat eats grass" and "Grass eats the goat" mean fundamentally different things. If you looked up the words goat, eat, and grass in a (theoretical) English-to-English dictionary and then tried to string them together, you would end up with the sentence "Goat eat grass," which makes you sound like a small child, but is still comprehensible.
However, if you try the same strategy with a Latin-to-English dictionary, you will end up with the sentence "capella edo herba," which, if we translate it back again, means "I, the goat grass, eat."
How do you say "The goat eats grass" in Latin, then?
It could be:
- capella herbam edit, or
- capella edit herbam, or
- herbam capella edit, et cetera.
Note that both nouns and verbs change form, and it's this form, not the word order, that tells us that the goat is eating the grass and not the other way around. (Technically, the word order changes the emphasis-- but it's the difference between "The goat eats grass" and "The goat eats grass," not a change in meaning.
Rule #1: Don't trust the English-Latin half of your dictionary!
Always check the meaning of a word in the Latin-English half (or even a bigger dictionary.) You might miss subtleties, or confuse words altogether.
English verbs change depending on the subject: I love, but my friend loves, and yesterday I loved. (In Latin these are amo, amat, and amavi.) However, verbs in Latin change much more than English verbs do: we usually change tense by adding helping verbs (I will love!), while Latin indicates most changes in tense by altering the verb itself (amabo). Latin can also indicate a subject just by the form of a verb: amo means "I love," but amas means "you love."
Latin dictionary entries for verbs include several different forms of a verb, called the principal parts, to help you build the right forms for the various subjects and tenses. (This is called conjugating the verb.) Let's look at some examples:
amo -are, to love passionately or fondly
We've seen already that amo means "I love." This form is called the first principal part. The dictionary heading for a Latin verb always means "I ____."
The -are means that we are supposed to remove the o from the first principal part and add are to form the second principal part, amare, which means "to love." The second principal part always means "to ____."
Since amo, amare is a regular verb (in fact, it's the first one that almost everyone learns!), we only need the first two principal parts to decline it fully. Let's look at a more complicated verb:
caedo caedere cecidi caesum, to cut, cut down, strike, beat
We've already seen that caedo means "I cut," or, more poetically, "I slaughter," and caedere means "to slaughter."
cecidi is past tense; it means "I slaughtered." The third principal part always means "I ___ed."
caesum is a neuter perfect passive participle. In other words, it's an adjective that means "having been slaughtered." We'll look at the way adjectives change later: for now, just note that the fourth principle part means "having been _____ed."
Nouns (Declining Cases)
Latin nouns can be feminine, masculine, or neuter. (This is true in several modern languages, such as German.) The gender is grammatical; it may or may not have anything to do with real life. (Words have gender, but people have sex!)
Latin nouns change according to their function in a sentence. This is true of English pronouns: "He cut me" means something quite different than "I cut him."
The different forms of nouns are called cases; the process of forming them is called declension. Here's a table, using the feminine noun capella, or she-goat.
Case Conjugated Noun Translation Grammar Pronoun Nominative capella goat subject she Genitive capellae of the goat --- of her Dative capellae to/ from the goat --- to/ from her Ablative capella with/ by the goat --- with/ by her Accusative capellam goat object her
This table only shows one goat: for plural goats, you'd need another whole table!
Nouns fall into various groups that conjugate similarly, called declensions. Within a declension, nouns may still decline differently if they have different genders. However, all nouns of the same declension have the same genitive ending, so a dictionary entry for a noun gives the genitive and the gender. Here are some examples:
malum, -i, n. an apple.
malum is "an apple," while "mali" is "of an apple." Also, malum is neuter.
leo, -onis, m. a lion.
leo is "a lion," while leonis is "of a lion." Also, leo is masculine.
Like nouns, adjectives decline. An adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in both number (singular or plural) and case (nominative, genitive, etc.) For example, lasciva capella means "a lusty goat," but lascivarum capellarum means "of the lusty goats." Similarly, candens capella means "shining-white goat," but candentum capellarum means "of the shining-white goats."
The dictionary entry for an adjective tells us the nominative singular form of an adjective for the different genders. Here are some examples:
lascivus, -a, -um, adj. In a good sense, playful, sportive.
This adjective has three endings, one each for feminine, masculine, and neuter, in that order.
fidelis, -e. adj. That can be trusted or relied upon, true, steadfast, faithful.
This adjective has two endings. fidelis could mean something masculine or feminine. fidele applies to something neuter: for example, iussum fidele is an order that can be trusted.
Hurrah for Adverbs!
Adverbs don't change at all! Some useful adverbs are semper ("always"), saepe ("often"), bene ("well"), optime ("in the best possible way, very well") and pessime ("in the worst possible way, very badly").
Some other common words don't change, either. Two of the most useful are et ("and") and non ("not").
How to Fake a Motto
Most of the following mottoes (the Marines' slogan is an obvious exception!) are taken from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources such as Alciato's Book of Emblems. These mottoes use words in their dictionary form; many lovely mottoes could be constructed on the same principles. (Be careful, of course, to substitute nouns for nouns, to ensure that adjectives agree in gender, and so on!)
Pairs of nouns
Vigilantia et Custodia = Wakefulness and Watchfulness
Furor et Rabies = Anger and Rage
Victoria limes = Victory (is) the Boundary
Video, et taceo = I see, and am silent
Sic frustra = Thus in Vain
Semper = Forever
Adverbs and Adjectives
Semper fidelis = Always Faithful (The marines!)
Semper pertinax = Always Firm
Nouns and Adjectives
Salus publica = the public good
Iusta vindicta = a just vengeance
Stealing from the Classics
anguis latet in herba = the snake hides in the grass (This is a quote from Vergil's Eclogues! Armed with the Latin text of a work popular in the Renaissance, such as the Aeneid or the Vulgate Bible, and a line-by-line translation, one could 'borrow' many other mottoes in truly period style.)
Sources for Further Reading
The Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD)
The standard reference for classical Latin words.
Cassell's Latin Dictionary
A comparatively portable Latin-English/ English-Latin dictionary.
The Perseus Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
Full text of most classical works in Latin and English, as well as various "Tools and Lexica" including a dictionary search.
A classic introductory textbook, with complete grammar information.
Reading Latin, 2 volumes, Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell
Learn Latin by reading selections adapted from classical Latin texts.
Reading Medieval Latin, Keith Sidwell
Selections from various medieval documents; the introductory sections include valuable information on the way people learned Latin in the Middle Ages.
Alciato's Book of Emblems, http://www.mun.ca/alciato/
A collection of mottoes, illustrations, and short poems popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Latin and English.
More Mottoes from Sixteenth-Century Sources, Jeff Lee, http://www.shipbrook.com/jeff/mottoes2.html
Mottoes taken from sources like Alciato's Book of Emblems. Most, but not all, are in Latin.
By Ursula Whitcher, alias Ursula Georges