In the year 1618, The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was touched off by an incident called "The Defenestration of Prague." The what?

Suppose you weren't familiar with that word "defenestration". How could you find out what it meant? You could look it up. Or, if you knew a little bit about Latin, you might be able to figure the word out for yourself.

Latin? What does Latin have to do with English? More than you might suppose. Let's find out.

In 43AD, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, Roman legions invaded the island of Britain. After many hard battles, they conquered the people there and stayed for the next 350 years. They set up a government, built roads, established trade, and did one more thing: they spoke Latin.

In 1066, the Normans conquered England. They built castles and a thriving economy, and intermarried with the native population. And they did something else-they spoke French, a language that grew out of Latin.

These two cultural upheavals a thousand years apart had a profound influence on the English language. More than 50% of English words derive from Latin directly or through French. You use words that come from Latin every month of the year.

You don't think so? Just take a look at a calendar.

January From Janus, the Roman god of beginnings
February From Februarius, a festival of purification
March From Mars, the Roman god of war
April From medieval Latin aprilus
May From Maius (Maia), an ancient goddess of growth
June From Juno, Roman goddess of hearth and family
July Named for Julius Caesar
August Named for Augustus Caesar
September From stepem (seven) this was the seventh month of the Roman calendar
October From octo (eight) this was the eighth month of the Roman calendar
November From novem (nine) this was the ninth month of the Roman calendar
December From decem (ten) this was the tenth month of the Roman calendar

Latin still persists as Latin in some expressions. Have you ever said, "et cetera"? That's Latin for "and the rest." Have you ever heard the phrase "quid pro quo"? It means, "something for something", someone wants to make a deal. If something happens over and over again until we can't stand it any more, we say it's gone on ad nauseam (to the point of sickness)

Every time you touch a one-dollar bill, you've got some Latin in your hand. Look at the back of the bill. The banner in the eagle's beak says, "E pluribus unum" (out of many: one.) Above the pyramid is the phrase "Annuit coeptis" (He (meaning God) has increased our undertaking). Beneath the pyramid, it says "Novus ordo seclorum" (A new order for the ages.)

Some professions that at the time of the Normans used Latin exclusively, like law, still use many Latin phrases today. When a court adjourns and does not set a date to reconvene, it adjourns sine die (without a day). Someone who is not directly involved in a case may submit a brief as amicus curiae (friend of the court). A legal writ used to get someone released from custody is called habeas corpus (you should have the body).

But mostly, Latin words have become English words. The bulk of the words that come from Latin (linguists call them "Latinate" words) date from the Norman Conquest, and they fall into two categories. First are words that came straight from Latin without change. Read on for some examples of those.

How do you like to spend your time? Perhaps you like to watch a video (Latin for see). Maybe you'll watch the news about a dictator (absolute ruler) in a foreign land. Maybe you'll listen to the radio (ray) instead, or practice your tuba (trumpet), or your part for the chorus (group) concert. And don't forget to water your Mom's ficus (fig tree) like she asked you. If you don't, you'd better have a good alibi (someplace else).

Maybe you'd like to use the computer and run the cursor (runner) over your favorite games, until you get an error (mistake) message. Then you can always play with your cat Felix (happy), or go outside and take some pictures with your camera (room), or play fetch with your dog Fido (I am faithful). Sound like a super (over, above) day?

Many more Latinate words in English have been changed to a greater or lesser degree. Some are two or more Latin words (or pieces of words) in combination. If you know some common roots you can figure out the meanings of words you've never seen before. For example, if navigo is the Latin word for to sail, and circum means around, what does it mean to circumnavigate the world? If loquor means to talk, what does circumlocution mean? (To "talk around", never come to the point.)

Once you know the roots, you can see how they are combined to form all sorts of words. For example:

ex (out of) + patria (native land) = expatriate, a person who has traveled far from home.
Aqua (water) + duct (lead) = aqueduct, a system of piping water where it's needed
Quad (four) + lat(side) = quadrilateral, a figure with four sides.
Omni (all) + potens (powerful) = omnipotent, all-powerful, able to do anything

Some common roots are used in a lot of different words. The root vert means to turn. Adding different prefixes gives us:

re+ (back) =revert, to turn back to a former state or condition
per+ (completely) = pervert to turn completely from an intended use or goal
a+ (away) = avert to turn away, avoid, or prevent
dis, di +(aside) = divert to turn aside or distract
con+ (with) = convert, to turn someone or something with you, to your side
sub+ (from below) = subvert, to turn from below, to influence a group or movement secretly, from the inside
extro+ (outside) = extrovert, someone whose personality is turned outwards, who meets and greets other people
intro + (within) = introvert, some who is turned inward, a shy, retiring person.

The more roots you learn, the more words you can figure out. This study of how words came about is called Etymology. Your best tool to learn about words is a good, hard-cover dictionary. A quality dictionary will tell you not only what the word means, but also where the word came from.

And that defenestration thing? It has to do with something the Bohemian nobles did to the emperor's deputies. De means down from and fenestra means window. What do you think happened? You could look it up.

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