Can’t Say That in English…

Johnny-on-the-Spot … by John Foster

I was eavesdropping the other day to one of my wife’s crafting videos when I heard the instructor say, “In one fell swoop”.

I wondered how that phrase came about.

Many think it came from William Shakespeare and the play “Macbeth”.

The term was connected to the murder of McDuff’s wife and children “like a hawk swooping down on defenseless pray”.

Remember studying English in school?

How about diagramming sentences?

And which one do you use? “Two”, “Too” or “To”?

I’m glad I took a lot of English courses because that has served me well in broadcasting and writing.

But I also studied foreign languages as well…Latin and German to be specific.

I discovered a lot of words and phrases we use in English are directly from Latin.

It somewhat amuses me to learn that we couldn’t find a better way to say “it” than the original Latin word or words.

The same goes for French.

Thus, I did a little research into common phrases you may hear or read today.

I find it interesting that the plethora of legal shows on TV lean heavily on Latin phrases and terms.

“Subpoena” is a written order, ordering or to order someone to attend a court of law or be punished.

If ignored, Detective Steve McGarrett (played by Jack Lord) on the old “Hawaii 5-0” show would say, “Book ’em Danno!” when they caught up with the “subpeona ignorer” or lawbreaker in general.

“Danno” was “Danny “Danno” Williams”, the second in command wth the fictional Hawaii State Police and played by James MacArthur.

“Modus operandi” is the usual way of doing something.

“Quid pro quo” is something for something, an equal exchange.

“Fait acompli”, an established fact; something that has been done and cannot be changed and we have the French to thank for that one.

“The Love Boat” exposed us to the French phrase, “bon voyage” which simply means “have a nice trip”.

Musicians can either “wing it” or use the French phrase “ad lib”.

Have you ever made a social blunder?

The French have you covered with “faux pas”.

If a large group group of us attend a sporting event at our old university or school, we’d be ‘en masse” (French) to our “alma mater” (Latin).

We might have a little Latin jangling in our pockets or purses since the phrase “e pluribus unum” is on our coins.

It means, “Out of many, one”.

Talk about a team effort.

The phrase also contains 13 words which is precisely the number of original states in the United States.


I think not.

Just like 13 stripes on Old Glory.

We have to thank the Italians for “al fresco” which “open air” while “angst”, meaning anxiety, or psychological suffering comes from the Germans.

(Wasn’t Al Fresco a character on “Happy Days”?)

“Vice versa” is Latin and is used to mean the opposite of a statement or situation, just described, is also true.

“Persona non grata”, an unacceptable person is Latin as is “status quo” or the existing situation.

Next time you dine out, get some pie “a la mode” which is French for fashionable or served with ice cream.

One scoop or two?

If someone is speaking and you’re bored to tears, they might be talking “ad infinitum”, Latin for endless, forever.

Pushed to the extreme, it might be another Latin term “ad nauseam” which is endlessly, to the point of nausea.

Sometimes that will lead to an “ad hoc” committee being appointed. There’s another Latin term, for something to be arranged or done, without pre-planning for a single, particular purpose.

Sounds like our government leaders hard at work in the nation’s capitol.

Never forget that a committee has been defined as the “cul de sac” down which creative ideas are lured and then slowly strangled.

“Cul de sac” is a road or passageway that is closed at one end.

That’s how the French would describe a “dead end” without having to turn around or back out, I guess.

“Coup de gras” is not a military takeover. It’s a French phrase for the final action or event that ends a suffering or deteriorating situation.

“Carte blanche, once again with credit to the French is authority or permission to do something the way one chooses to do it.

And to think I once believed it was the newest credit card.

When you golf, “par” is always the goal but “par excellence” is the very best ,surpassing all others.

Might that be a “hole in one” or an “ace”?

By the way, if you are reading this, I did not mean to insult you.

Phrases and terms that we’ve been discussing are normally put “in quotes” but only if the writer has a strong expectation that the reader will know the phrases’ meaning.

Honestly, I only did the “in-quote-thing” to help highlight the phrases.

Cross my heart and hope to die.

So, if you want to “buy” that explanation, I will remind you of the Latin term “caveat emptor”.

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