But for that, we’ll have to wait. In the meantime, Latin is enjoying a bit of a moment. Yes, it’s caught up in partisanship, rancor and distrust, but that doesn’t mean Latin scholars and students aren’t embracing the nationwide focus on three words that date to the Roman Empire.
“When a Latin word or phrase is in the news, I tingle with excitement,” said Josiah Osgood, chair of Georgetown University’s Department of Classics. “It’s proof that the Romans created a highly efficient language that neatly describes phenomena we encounter today.”
Matthew McGowan, a Latin professor at Fordham University and vice president for outreach at the Society for Classical Studies, agrees — but a tad less enthusiastically.
“I mean, at this stage we’ll take anything we can get,” he said, laughing.
All jocularity aside, the attention is a bonus, McGowan said, especially when it comes to teaching.
“We try to make our students aware of the presence of Latin all around them, and phrases like ‘quid pro quo’ and ‘carpe diem’ are really convenient to do that,” he said. “There is just a depth of understanding that you get from knowing Latin and being able to connect it with a particular tradition that informs our experience of the world. It plugs you into a larger conversation.”
While “quid pro quo” has dominated the headlines, there is actually a surfeit of Latin words and phrases associated with this impeachment: subpoena, corruption, investigation, transcript, conspiracy, circus. Other Latin terms may arise. Another phrase Latin and legal scholars point to regarding the impeachment inquiry is “Cui bono,” or “To whom is it a benefit?” The term suggests that to find the guilty party, you identify who has the most to gain from the crime.
For Latin lovers, the inquiry is providing a bounty of terms that are familiar beyond their current context.
“It’s kind of a delight,” Michael DeFelice, a Georgetown senior majoring in classical languages, said about hearing and seeing Latin words and phrases being used in popular culture. “It shows that Latin is still a vibrant and relevant language today. And knowing it gives you X-ray vision into English and the Romance languages.”
The spotlight on quid pro quo also serves as a reminder of Latin’s imprint on American history and political life. “In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States, but “E pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) is included on the seal of the United States, stamped on its currency and considered by many Americans as the country’s guiding principle.
Mottos, it turns out, are a treasure trove of Latin expressions. More than 20 states have Latin ones. New York: Excelsior! (Ever Upward!). South Carolina: Dum spiro spero (While I breathe, I hope). And Idaho: Esto perpetua (Let it be perpetual).
Not all Latin mottos are equally inspirational. Michigan opted for Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you).
But state mottos aren’t the stuff of Latin study. They’re not bandied about, and they rarely if ever enter the vernacular. And in 21st-century America, that’s true of most Latin words and phrases. For teachers, the challenge is to engage students in a language they won’t typically utter outside of classrooms.
“We’re not preparing students to go off to a Latin-speaking culture unless they want to go work for the Vatican,” said William Clausen, classics department chair at Washington Latin, a classics-focused public charter school for grades five through 12 in the District. “But there is a disproportionate power in knowing Latin words. If you know the root word, you kind of get 10 English words for free.”
Genesis Young, a sophomore at the school, where students are required to take three years of Latin, said she first thought learning the language was a waste of time “because nobody spoke it.” But that soon changed. “Knowing Latin, you know where words derive from. It can help you understand the meaning of a word you’ve not seen before. It’s cool to be like, ‘Yeah, I know this.’ ”
The number of students studying Latin in the United States has remained steady since the turn of the century. Last year, 130,000 students in grades six through 12 took the National Latin Exam, a test given annually to students to promote the study of Latin. And an estimated 200,000 students studied Latin in 1,500 schools throughout the country, according to Sherwin Little, executive director of the American Classical League and a retired Latin teacher.
That’s nowhere near Latin’s peak in the late 1930s, when about 900,000 secondary school students studied the language. But a resurgence over the past two decades has kept Latin in the top four languages taught in the United States. It’s well behind Spanish and French, but in a close battle for third with German. And Latin teachers are always in demand, Little said.
It remains to be seen if the impeachment investigation will stir interest in Latin among a new generation of students or if the quid pro quo fascination will fade when the impeachment process concludes.
Robert Kaster, a leading scholar and emeritus professor of Latin language and literature at Princeton University, thinks the use of quid pro quo in the impeachment proceedings is all a bit puzzling.
“The English equivalent is no less economical and certainly for most people is going to be clearer. I don’t know what it is about the Latin that seems to catch people’s fancy,” he said. “Maybe it has to do with a certain cachet that Latin has.”
But Kaster does proffer a Latin phrase he thinks is perhaps appropriate for the current historical moment. It’s from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” when the hero Aeneas has been washed up on the shore of North Africa in what would become Carthage. His fleet has been wrecked and his men are desperate.
“Aeneas says, ‘Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,’ ” Kaster recounted. “ ‘One day, perhaps, we’ll be glad to remember even this.’ ”