The problem with the Romans is they always try to walk it in

John Bull
10 min readOct 23, 2017
The IT Crowd, highlighting the absurdity of everything really.

Using Latin phrases is often just verbal bullying, Bullingdon style. So let’s translate phrases into football.

There’s a particularly insidious verbal technique that seems to have crept back into political debate — the recourse to Latin. The two biggest proponents of this are current (despite his increasingly desperate efforts) Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Parliament’s House Elf Jacob Rees-Mogg. Both men are prone to dropping a pithy line of Latin into the middle of a comment.

They aren’t the only ones, however, which begs the question: what purpose does it serve?

People called Romanes they go the house?!

Whatever way you cut it, Latin phrases aren’t something that pop up in most normal conversations.

This isn’t to say that the language isn’t beautiful. It is. As a teenager I was lucky enough to be exposed to it more than most kids in the regular schooling system. I had a history teacher qualified to teach it and he pushed me to study it. I did, and emerged with a GCSE, an A-Level and the ability to translate football club mottos.

(I once tried to claim I could still do more than this in the pub and was promptly called out for bullshitting by my best friends. They have never let me live that down. Both of these things are why they are my best friends.)

A knowledge of Latin, however, is not something most regular people in the UK grow up with these days. Indeed Boris himself pointed this out in an article back in 2010, highlighting that only 15% of maintained schools offer the subject.

So why do Boris, and politicians (and public figures) like him, litter speeches and conversations with phrases they know the overwhelming number of people won’t understand?

The weaponisation of language

Speak to Boris and others and they’ll return frequently to the argument of ‘beauty’ or point out that it isn’t that hard these days to ‘educate’ oneself as to meaning with the help of the internet. Indeed this is a point Johnson made back in that 2010 piece.

The truth, though, is really to be found in the other half of the sentence containing the statistic quoted above. In maintained schools, Latin has (or had, at the time) a penetration of 15%. In private schools that number is 60%.

This makes Latin a weapon.

+2 Class anxiety. A British race trait

There is really no denying that in public discourse dropping a Latin phrase is — whether intended or not — an exclusionary tactic.

As the numbers above demonstrate, it’s one that cuts to the very heart of the British subconscious. More than it even was fifty years ago, it is a way of saying “I went to a better school than you.” It is bullying, Bullingdon-style. When you can’t throw bread rolls or money at the waiters, throw a pecunia non olet instead.

(And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of what I just did. That’s partly the point. To demonstrate how fucking annoying and stupid it can be. In this case, the phrase means “money does not stink”. The Emperor Vespasian allegedly said it when people moaned about him introducing a urine tax)

What’s doubly insidious is when the speaker uses weaponised Latin in the middle of a debate — whether with the wider public, or with an individual. This is because it instantly undermines the “oh just Google or learn it” argument. The first would require breaking away from the conversation, and the second neatly dodges around the fact that for a lot of people time isn’t a luxury, it’s a commodity.

Unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg most parents can’t boast that they have never had to change a nappy. There are also whole swathes of society whose mental and physical efforts of an evening are spent either working or recovering from a hard day of doing so. Hardly the best of mental states in which to start learning how to properly decline a verb.

In this context the use of Latin becomes something even worse than a way of flexing your class muscles. It becomes a way of robbing people of a right to reply to the argument or — more bluntly — a way of spotting and calling out your bullshit. It may seem like clever oratory but it’s the exact opposite. It’s lazy.

Latin 1–2 Football

Some time back, I found myself in a particularly annoying and inescapable conversation at a digital strategy conference with a wielder of weaponised Latin.

Even with my passing knowledge of the language, it was a mentally frustrating experience. It was clearly even more so for the other two people in the conversation, who were clearly already planning their exit towards the bar. I didn’t want to become the sacrificial conversational lamb to a guy (and let’s be honest, it is always a guy) who’s first words to me had been “Great talk! Can I ask where you went to school?” So the next time he threw out a Latin phrase I translated it, to the best of my limited ability out loud.

I hoped it would make him feel a bit awkward — that most painful of British mental states — and thus that he’d stop. But it didn’t. He simply laughed and corrected my translation, managing to make me feel embarrassed, trigger some deep-set social inferiority complex, and accelerate the speed at which the rest of the group began to edge away.

Then he did it again and, almost unthinkingly, I didn’t translate it, I just chucked out a footballing analogy instead.

“Sorry what? I don’t understand.” He said, pausing mid-flow.

Inverted class bullying

Without realising it at the time, what I’d actually landed on was the inverted class attack. Just as the finer points of Ovid were lost on me, so it seemed the concept of a manager “losing the dressing room” was lost on him. Recourse to Latin countered by recourse to football (and yes, again, I’m aware of the irony given the game’s origins as an upper class sport).

I’d like to be able to say that, at this point, he realised the error of his ways and stopped doing it.

That’s not actually what happened though. What happened is that I was able to blurt out “ANYWAYIMUSTGONETWORK” before either of the two people next to me thought to do it. As the joke goes, you don’t have to be faster than the bear that’s attacking you, you just have to be faster than the person standing next to you.

I don’t know what that is in Latin, but if you give me a copy of a dictionary and a grammar guide I can probably have a stab at it.

Repeating the technique

I’ve actually used this trick — and that’s all that it is really — a few times since. If you want to hit me with some obscure line from Virgil’s Aenead, then don’t be surprised if I drop a reference to Faustino Asprilla teaching a horse to play football while dressed as a dinosaur.

Surprisingly, as a technique it does actually work. Not as a way of stopping annoying people from using Latin as a verbal weapon forever, but at least as a way of breaking their flow and (occasionally) making them realise what they’re doing is at best silly and at worst disingenuous.

Nor does it have to be football, I suspect. To be honest it can probably be whatever is likely to trigger a sense of class-anxiety in one’s betters. Decent lager. Caravan holidays. Doesn’t matter, as long as it triggers their subconscious fear of villagers marching on the big house with torches.

To finish, though (and to highlight how bloody stupid and what a thoroughly British problem this all is). Here are five Latin classics, several of which have been used by my ‘betters’, translated into football. Indeed I’m conscious that for a lot of people neither of the Latin or football sayings will make sense.

But again, that’s kind of the point. If you want to speak to people in an open and honest way, use open and universal words and phrases. Language matters, kids. More than most people think, and more than some people want you to think about…

“ Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.”

The football version:

“ Like Tony Adams in a Wenger team”

The explanation:

This article was in part spawned by a conversation with the writer Caroline Criado Perez on Twitter about Boris. Do read her stuff as it is great (not least because it led to one hater angrily declaring her a ‘lobbiest for Big Vagina’ which is simultaneously the funniest and most depressing thing ever).

The example that I used in that conversation was the one above. The Latin roughly translates as ‘Time changes and we must change with it.” A comparison to booze-chugging, take-away eating Arsenal legend Tony Adams pulling a complete one-eighty to become a key part of Wenger’s healthy-eating back four seems appropriate.

The most (in)famous recent use of this Latin phrase was by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who opted to use as his first tweet. This no doubt reassured his admirers that, however much technology changes, his devotion to maintaining the gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ continues to be unwavering.

“…carent quia vate sacro”

The football version:

“There was football before the Premier League, you know.”

The explanation:

Turning to the master himself, Boris threw this one into an article he wrote back in 2005. For the sake of historical accuracy, this places the article before his second stretch at The Telegraph. That’s the one where they paid him a mere ‘chicken feed’ at £250,000. It also places it after his first stretch there, where he helped his mate Darius Guppy get a fellow journalist beaten up (I’m not sure what “How badly are you going to hurt this guy?” is in Latin, but I bet Boris could tell you without a dictionary).

Anyway, I digress. Boris was at The Spectator in 2005.

The article itself is a pretty painful piece of romansplaining. I love Greco-Roman History more than is probably healthy, but by the end of the article even I was desperately searching the web for Alaric the Goth’s Patreon in the hope that I could chuck him a few quid to burn Rome down again.

Strictly speaking, the phrase isn’t actually a complete one. It’s the tail end of a line that appears in the Odes by the Roman poet Horace. It means something like “…because they lack a sacred bard.”

What’s the first bit, you ask?

Well Boris actually includes the whole phrase in English in his article.

There were many brave men who lived before Agamemnon, he notes in the fourth book of Odes, but they were all unwept by posterity, all lost in death’s dateless night because they lack a holy bard, carent quia vate sacro.

So there you go. Great saying, actually. People can do great things, but unless someone is still singing about it don’t expect to be remembered for the ages. It’s certainly a very Boris attitude to political life.

It’s also a problem that many footballers who became legends in the years before the Premier league and YouTube highlight reels existed will recognise.

The inclusion of the full English phrase and the Latin seems a bit redundant in the article. Unless you’re really, really keen to stress that — unlike most of the people reading — yes, you do understand this in the original. Think of it as a posh version of “I was listening to that band before they were cool.”

Oh Boris, you card!

“Carthago delenda est”

The football version:

“ ‘We’re just concentrating on one game at a time”

The explanation:

Cato the Elder was a tedious shit, blessed with a firm belief that he was capable of speaking with authority on any topic he had passing knowledge of. Imagine Michael Gove wearing a bed-sheet and you’re there.

One of the things he was famous for was this saying. Effectively: “Carthage must be destroyed.” He put at the end of every speech he gave in the senate. Just to remind the Romans that this was what they should be striving for at all times, and it’s become a bit of a by-word for the grim determination to meet a goal.

The Romans eventually managed to do it, of course, mostly through a combination of luck, attrition and the extraordinary talents of Scipio Africanus, the Mauricio Pochettino of his day.

“Caesar non supra grammaticos”

The football version:

“We all love an overhead kick, but sometimes it’s just dangerous play.”

The explanation:

This isn’t actually an ‘ancient’ phrase. Roughly, it translates to “Even Caesar isn’t above grammarians.” It means “rules are rules.”

The phrase isn’t actually ancient. It’s more of a middle ages thing and dates back to the Holy Roman Emperor getting his grammar wrong in a speech at the Council of Constance. In doing so he proved forever that even being the chap who ‘saved’ Catholicism still isn’t enough to stop a bunch of proto-Etonians having a pop at you for the way you talk.

Corvus oculum corvi non eruit

The football version:

About as useful as a FIFA ethics investigation

The explanation:

Loosely: “a crow doesn’t eat other crows’ eyes” — so think ‘honour among thieves’. I distinctly remember one ex-MP lobbing this out on Question Time during the expenses scandal.

FIFA seems an entirely appropriate comparison.

I am a writer and historian. Unlike Alaric the Goth I do have a Patreon which you can find here.Okay, it’s actually for London Reconnections, the transport news and history website I run…

…but who doesn’t like cool articles about Uber and trains and stuff, right?

UPDATED: Hat tip to Pink Frost over at Metafilter for a better footballing metaphor for ‘Carthago delenda est’.



John Bull

Writer. Narrative designer. Historian. I focus on tales of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and helping companies tell their own stories better.