A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V

Patrick Bracher in Johannesburg started compiling this A to Z of Latin terms when RE: was founded in 2011. As 2020 comes to an end, so does he. His monumental task is done.



ad hoc

This particular purpose. The more casual use as ‘impromptu’ or ‘without forethought’ is not strictly correct but is common.


ad idem



a fortiori

The Cambridge Guide to English Usage defines this perfectly: “This elliptical phrase means roughly by way of something stronger. Far from being an oblique reference to fetching the whisky, it’s used in formal discussion to mean ‘with yet stronger reason’ and to introduce a second point which the speaker or writer feels will clinch the argument.”


a priori

This phrase concerns reasoning. It means from what went before to suggest cause and effect. As the cause relied on is often an assumption, it can have negative connotations.


amicus curiae

Friend of the court. With the growing number of human rights cases, a friend of the court can play an important role in giving the courts a broader picture than the immediate, adversarial litigants might offer.



Intention. In the legal context, animus normally implies hostile intent to injure or insult.


audi alteram partem

Espoused by Augustine, the requirement to hear the other side is an important principle of natural justice in dispute resolution and administrative law.


annus mirabilis

Year of wonder, year of marvels. A good note to end on for some.



blandae mendacia linguae

The lies of a flattering tongue: a warning against silver-tongued advocacy.


bona fide(s)

Good faith. Sometimes translated as ‘in good faith’ (an offer in good faith).


bona vacantia

Goods without an owner which then belong to the State. The assets of a corporation wrongly deregistered may revert to the State until the company is re-registered.


brutum fulmen

An innocuous thunderbolt, used by (the Roman natural philosopher) Pliny the Elder in the sense of an empty threat.



cadit quaestio

The question falls. The argument has reached a point where there is nothing more to be said. The question is answered.


caveat emptor

Let the buyer beware. This phrase has less immediacy in this age of consumer protection legislation.


compos mentis

Of sound mind. (As opposed to compost mentis.)


contra bonos mores

Harmful to the moral welfare of society and therefore unenforceable in a court (such as an agreement to commit a crime).


cuius est solum, ejus est usque ad caelum et usque ad infero

Whoever owns the land, owns it up to the heavens and down to the core of the earth. In an age where mineral rights are often owned by, and airspace controlled by, the State, this maxim has become an over-simplification.


contra proferentem

Literally, ‘against the proferring party’ where ambiguity or uncertainty in a document is construed against the party responsible for drafting it.



damnum sine injuria esse potest

There can be physical injury without legal liabilitywhich is why players cannot sue for ordinary rugby injuries (other than a defence of insanity).


doli incapax

Legally incapable of committing a wrong. There is an extraordinary presumption that children under a certain age (seven in some parts of the world, ten in others) cannot act maliciously.


dona clandestina sunt semper suspiciosa

Secret gifts are always suspicious. The reason for the UK Bribery Act.



ejusdem generis

Of the same type. Where particular words describe a particular category of thing or person, general words that follow are interpreted to include only things of the same class. The birds-of-a-feather principle. So ‘oranges, etc’ and ‘oranges, peaches, etc’ mean all fruit but ‘oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc’ probably means all citrus fruit.


e pluribus unum

Out of many, one, or, simply, united, which explains why it is the motto on the great seal, designed in the eighteenth century for the United States. Clear light from the full spectrum of colours is a more poetic example.


ex abundanti cautela

From an abundance of care. This is the Latin belt-and-braces principle. When President Obama had his oath of office repeated following his Inauguration, this was done ex abundanti cautela.


ex contractu

Arising from contract. It is usually a judicial policy decision whether someone who breaches a contract can also be sued in tort (delict) for any harm done (which is, for instance, usually the case in medical negligence actions).


ex gratia

As an act of grace or as a favour. Remember, if you pay a claim ex gratia your goodness may not be rewarded because, in the absence of a legal liability to pay, you may not be able to recover your outlay from a third party.


ex officio

By virtue of the office or status held, to be given some particular position or privilege. For example, the managing director is ex officio chair of the board.


ex parte

In relation to a court application, by one party only without notice to any other party. It is sometimes used to describe the parties to a case where one represents the interests of another. For example, R v Committee of Lloyd’s, ex parte Posgate 1983. It is not a hangover.


ex tempore

On the spur of the moment. Can be described as an off-the-cuff speech, which often proves the rule that an unprepared speech is not worth the paper it is written on.


ex turpi causa non oritur action

A claim will not be countenanced by a court if the party bringing the claim is guilty of moral turpitude or illegal conduct. It is similar to the requirement of having to come to court with clean hands.


ex nihilo nihil fit
The ancient Roman version—re The Sound of Music—of the song ‘Nothing comes from nothing’.


ex silentio

A conclusion drawn from the fact that nothing was said or written. Rather like the undisguised elephant in the room.



fac simile

Literally, ‘make the like’. A facsimile. But fax in Latin is a torch.


fiat justitia

‘Let justice be done.’ Sometimes the words ruat caelum, ‘though the heavens fall’, are added.


flagrante delicto

Caught in the act of committing the crime, from flagro, ‘to burn with passion’, giving some clue to its common use.


forum conveniens

More correctly, the ‘appropriate’ forum rather than ‘the convenient forum’; the jurisdiction where the interests of justice will best be served.


functus officio

Having performed his or her office. With the official job done, a person is no longer vested with the powers of office. A judge is functus officio after delivering a judgment and cannot change the decision.




General words or principles. Often used in generalia specialibus non derogant, a guide to interpretation that general provisions don’t prevail over special provisions.


grammatica falsa non vitiat chartam

‘False grammar does not vitiate a deed’, which is a good thing for many lawyers.



A serious or solemn demeanour, once prized in judges.



habeas corpus

Have [produce] the body. A long-standing human rights law requiring that arrested persons be brought before a court straight away to determine if the detention is lawful.


habendum et tenendum

To have and to hold. The opposite of having your cake and eating it.


hostis humani generis

Enemy of mankind subject to capture by all states (e.g. a pirate). Nowadays, sought by Interpol.



ignorantia juris non excusat

This well-known phrase needs little introduction: ignorance of the law is no excuse.


imperitia culpae adnumeratur

Lack of skill is blameworthy. If an activity needs particular skills (such as those of a surgeon), it is negligent to act without applying those skills.


in aeternum

For eternity. You could also say, For ever. To the ends of time. To infinity and beyond.


in camera / in curia

In court proceedings: in private; or, in open court.


in extensor

Stated at full length. The sign of a bore.


in extremis

At the point of death.


in forma pauperis

Destitute and therefore not required to pay the costs in a law suit.


in gremio legis

In the lap of the law. In open and democratic societies everyone should be under the protection of the law.


in judicando esto pupillis misericors

In judging be merciful to minors. A worthy sentiment on the statue of St Yves in Brittany (from the Vulgate).


in limine

On the threshold. Usually a preliminary point taken in court in the hope of defeating the whole action.


in loco parentis

A person in the place of a parent and therefore having similar obligations to care for the childas, for example, a playschool.


in pari delicto

Equally corrupt. When two parties to a deal are equally villainous, the court will not come to either party’s aid.


in pari materia

Of like material or substance, or materially similar, showing nicely the origin of the word ‘material’ in both senses.


in prompt

In readiness. The Latin origin of ‘impromptu’.


in re

In the matter of. Also ‘in re:’, meaning in a great magazine.


in specie

In tangible form. Repayment of a debt paid in gold coins is repaid in specie in gold coins.


in terrorem

By way of a threat. As in an excessive penalty for breach.


intra vires

Validly done within one’s powers to act.


in vacuo

In a vacuum. Without any context.


in vino veritas

In wine there is truth—alcohol being a later-to- be-regretted truth serum.


infinitum jure reprobatur

The law abhors endless litigation (wishful thinking).



Injury. Usually used in relation to reputation rather than bodily injury.


ipse dixit

In their own words. An uncorroborated statement, not be confused with ipsissima verba, meaning ‘the exact words used’.


ipso facto

By the very fact itself. ‘Therefore’ will usually do.


ipso jure

By the operation of law.



A right or a legal system. Better not spelt using a ‘j’ to avoid confusion with ‘juice’.


ius civile

The civil law. In Roman times this was the law of Rome as opposed to the jus gentium, which were laws of universal application.



The letter ‘j’ is a latecomer to the alphabet and was not used in Roman Latin, where an ‘i’ was invariably used (and still is by the purists).


jacta alea est

The die is cast. Attributed to Julius Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon to challenge the Roman authorities and started the civil war.


justa causa

A just cause or lawful ground. Used in Roman law instead of the need for a consideration as the basis for an agreement.


justus error

A reasonable or excusable error. Sometimes excusing liability.



Although there was a ‘k’ in Latin, the ‘c’ was preferred and ‘k’ is hardly ever used.



laesa majestas

Injured majesty. The crime of laesae majestatis is the crime of high treason.


legem brevem esse oportet

A law should be brief. A rare achievement.


legum baccalaureus, legum majister

LLB and LLM. Well-known law degrees.


lex fori

Law of the forum. The law of the court in which the action is heard.


lex loci

The law of the place. The law where the act occurred.


lex non cogit ad impossibilia

The law does not compel the impossible. As in failing to report an accident when unconscious.


lis alibi pendens

The lawsuit is pending elsewhere. You cannot sue for the same cause in two different courts at once.


lis sub judice

A lawsuit before a judge. Often used as grounds for ‘no comment’.


locus classicus

A classic place or source. It refers to the leading authority on a point.


locus standi

Legal standing. The right to be heard from a court in a particular place.



magna carta

The great charter of liberty and political rights of 1215, much written about in 2015.


mala fide

In bad faith. Done fraudulently or dishonestly.


mala grammatica non vitiat chartam

Bad grammar does not invalidate a contract—but it may substantially change the rights of the parties.



We command. Usually a court order obliging the respondent to do something.


mea culpa

My fault! Your insurers won‘t thank you for saying so.


mendacem memorem esse oportet

A liar should have a good memory. The first thing a witness being cross-examined should remember.


mirabile dictu

Amazingly. Or ‘wonderful to relate‘. Often used ironically.


modus operandi

Manner of working. Sometimes used as evidence of a pattern of criminal behaviour to prove a crime.


modus vivendi

Way of living. ‘Lifestyle’ being the modern equivalent.



From the Latin mora for ‘delay’. A temporary suspension of an obligation to do something or pay a debt.


mortis causa

In contemplation of approaching death—for instance, the forgiveness of debt on one’s deathbed


mutatis mutandis

With the necessary changes. As when you incorporate the terms of another document into a contract and minor changes are needed.



necessitas non habet leges

Necessity has no law. Acting from necessity can be a defence to allegations of wrongful conduct.


nemine contradicente

Nobody dissenting. As in the tacit unanimous approval of a meeting. Usually written as nem. con.


nemo judex in causa sua

Nobody should judge in their own cause. No one should sit in judgment in a matter in which they have a personal involvement or interest which is a ground for asking for recusal.


ne sutor ultra crepidam

Let the cobbler not venture beyond his sandal. Stick to what you know.


nolle prosequi

No wish to proceed. It indicates that the prosecution authority will not be proceeding with a criminal matter. I knew a deputy attorney general years ago who, when he got too busy, threw all the files up in the air and those that landed on the floor were stamped nolle prosequi.


non compos mentis

No control of one’s mind. A defence to an accusation of wrongfulness.


non sequitur

It does not follow. Usually used as a noun about something that does not logically follow from what was said immediately before.


noscitur a sociis

Known from fellow travellers. People or words are understood by the company they keep.


nota bene

Note well. A warning to take care with what follows. Now watered down to the clichéd phrase ‘it is important to note’.


novus actus interveniens

A new intervening act or cause. A second act which breaks the chain of causation so that the original wrongdoer is not responsible for the final adverse outcome.


noxiae poena par esto

Let the punishment fit the crime (Cicero). A principle of sentencing.


nulla poena sine lege

No punishment without law. You can only have criminal consequences for a clearly stated crime which is in force when the event occurs.



obiter dictum

Something said by the way. In court judgments, a non-binding statement of the law.


obscurum per obscurius

Explaining something obscure by what is more obscure. Often the case when lawyers attempt to argue by analogy.


omnia praesumuntur rite esse acta

All things are presumed to have been correctly done. An odd presumption in a world where life happens.


onus probandi

Usually referred to as the onus, namely the burden of proof. Who bears the onus is important in court proceedings.


opere citato

In the work cited. Usually seen as the abbreviation op. cit. in footnotes.



pacta sunt servanda

Agreements must be honoured. An important principle of law and commerce.


pari passu

With equal pace or force. Particularly when balancing the rights of two or more parties or assets in a transaction.



Head of the family. The unfortunate Roman law concept that has preserved patriarchy.


paucis verbis

With few words. The Latin phrase least remembered by lawyers.


pendente lite

While a lawsuit is pending. Not a chandelier.


per annum

Annually. The extra ‘n’ distinguishes it from the medical term.


per incuriam

Through lack of care. Usually used regarding an unreliable judicial pronouncement made carelessly.


per procurationem

Through the agency of. Abbreviated to p.p. when signing for another.


persona non grata

An unwelcome person. In international affairs the reason for the sudden homesickness of diplomatic personnel.


post mortem

After death. Literally, an autopsy; figuratively, a discussion about what went wrong.


post scriptum

Written afterwards. A PS; a lost device in this easy-correct digital age.


pro bono public

For the public good. Usually ‘pro-bono’, referring to unpaid legal work for a good cause.



quae fuerant vitia mores sunt

What were vices are now the fashion. Increasingly the case in this fast-moving world as with marijuana.


quantum meruit

As much as is deserved. Used to reduce a contract price to what is reasonable for the job done.


quicquid plantatur solo, solo cedit

Whatever is attached to the soil belongs to the soil. A building on land cannot be separately owned.


quantum meruit

As much as is deserved. Used to reduce a contract price to what is reasonable for the job done.


quicquid plantatur solo, solo cedit

Whatever is attached to the soil belongs to the soil. A building on land cannot be separately owned.


quid faciat leges, ubi sola pecunia regnat

What will laws do, where only money rules? A cry for the Bribery Act.


quid pro quo

Something for something. The basis of every contract.


qui prior est tempore potior est jure

Earlier in time is stronger in law. An earlier right beats a competing interest.


quis custodiet ipsos custodies

Who guards the guardians? (The Roman poet Juvenal.) The rationale behind the choice of eunuchs to guard women in ancient times.


qui tacet consentit

Silence gives assent. In constitutional democracies the right to silence is usually protected.


quod erat demonstrandum

QED: what was to be demonstrated (has been proved). Usually employed for self-congratulation.


quod vide

q.v. or, which see. A way of cross-referencing in a text.



ratio decidendi

The reasons for the decision. The core reasons for the finding in a court judgment which is binding for future cases unless reversed.



In the matter of. Probably the most commonly used Latin word, including in our title.


reductio ad absurdum

Reduced to absurdity. A line of argument used to show that the opposition’s proposed reasoning leads to a nonsensical conclusion. The argument is often as nonsensical.


res inter alios acta

A transaction between persons which cannot be relied on by a third party. Car insurance, for example, cannot benefit a third party causing the damage.


res ipsa loquitur

The thing speaks for itself. The Latin equivalent of ‘duh’. Not a telephone.


res nullius

A thing belonging to no-one. Throw something away, and you lose ownership which the possessor can acquire.




Thus. To indicate a misspelling or other error. Don’t use it unless you have to. It looks self-righteous.


sine die

Without a day. An adjournment of court case or meeting, etc to an unspecified date, which often leads to delays.


stare decisis

Stand by decided matters. Past judgments are binding unless clearly wrong or overtaken. The recent UK Supreme Court Brexit decision relied on case law going back to 1611.


sub rosa

Under the rose. A Roman symbol of secrecy. The annual government budget speech is kept sub rosa until the minister introduces it in parliament.


sub judice

Before a judge. Formerly, pending cases were sub judice and kept confidential. In this age of media freedom, it seldom applies without a gagging order.



Under penalty. A summons to appear in court to give evidence or produce documents ignored at the risk of a fine or imprisonment.


sui generis

Of its own kind. In a contract, often something unique and not part of a group of things or words.





tabula rasa

A scraped tablet. Uninfluenced by preconceptions. In a person, an open but not a vacant mind


terra nullius

Nobody’s land. Land allegedly subject to nobody’s ownership, the fiction of colonialism.


testis unus, testis nullius

One witness is a witness of nothing. Take care of unsupported testimony.



uberrimae fidei

Utmost good faith. Lawyers have questioned whether there can be degrees of good faith.


ultra vires

Outside of powers. Where a government functionary acts beyond the powers delegated to them.




Go with me. Used to describe a portable book of general information. Now a mobile phone.


valere iubere

To bid farewell. As I must do, being about to reach the end of the alphabet.


vice versa

The other way round. Not bad poetry.



One can see. Referring one to a passage in another book, usually abbreviated to viz.


vigilantibus non dormientibus serviunt leges

The law assists those who are vigilant and not those who sleep. The Latin equivalent of ‘you snooze, you lose’


vincet veritas

Truth will win. Sadly not always realised in practice.


vinculum matrimonii

The chain or bond of marriage. Decide for yourself which it is.


viva voce

Literally, with the living voice, orally. Such as evidence given in court.


vocis contentio et remissio

Raising and lowering the voice.  Cicero’s advice to orators.


volenti non fit injuria

No wrong can be done to a willing person. Someone who consents to injury, for example in playing a contact sport, cannot recover damages caused by the ordinary risks of the game; or if you willingly travel in a car with a drunken driver.



The people or the rabble. Depending whether they are for you or against you.





A warm west wind or zephyr. One of the rare Latin words beginning in ‘z’.