Comment Opinion & Features

Latin is the true language of love

If you want to impress a loved one this Valentine's Day, try the poetry of Virgil, Horace and Ovid

Since next week we mark the feast of St Valentine – a priest and physician in Rome whose cult came to be associated with love because of the traditional belief that birds pair up around this date – it might be entertaining to recommend phrases in Latin for those who go a-wooing.

I regret that I know little Latin, but having grown up in an ambience where it was the language of faith, many Latin words have a familiar ring.

Virgil, Horace, Juvenal, Catullus and Ovid wrote phrases that might well be suitable for those seeking to impress a swain or inamorata.

Imagine receiving a Valentine’s card with words taken from Virgil: “Omnia vincit amor: et nos cedamus amori.” (Love conquers all – let us, too, surrender to love.) Or, perhaps, choose Horace’s adage, which will surely be partly familiar: “Dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem.” (While we are speaking, jealous time flies: seize the day.) Yes, that “carpe diem” has been motto-ised in many a collection of quotations.

Ovid, who wrote whole books on love and seduction, could also be invoked with his warning: “Militiae species amor est.” (“Love is a kind of war.”) Although some of his amorous counsel would not pass muster in our age of feminist sensitivity to consent: “Risit et argutis quiddam promisit ocellis.” (“She smiled and made a certain promise with her eyes.”) Sorry, Ovid, that wouldn’t stand up in a court of law today …

Latin terms of endearment can be very charming: Ocelle (apple of my eye), Vita (my life), Verculum (my little spring chicken) and Melculum (my little honey).

Responses to declarations of romantic devotion may well be positive, with love reciprocated “Omnino” (completely), “Studiose” (devotedly) “Dulciter” (sweetly), “Iocose” (playfully) or “Corpus Animaque” (body and soul).

Though, alas, hearts may also be broken and the wooer rebuffed, too, with “In somnis!” (In your dreams!) or “Noli me tangere!” (Leave me alone.) Or with more gentle rejection: “Te amo, sed non deperire” (“I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”) Those disappointed in romance can always sing, with Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive” (Superabo), or, more mournfully, Numquam alterum te inveniam – “I’ll never find another you.”

St Valentine was a Roman, so Latin surely fits his feast day.


French speakers claim that their language is precise, and therefore excellent for communication (and plausibly). Certainly, English can be open to ambiguities which aren’t always attractive.

It was reported at the weekend that the Queen and the Royal Family might be “evacuated” from London if there were post-Brexit street riots. We know that means that the royals might be moved away, but “evacuated” is a dodgy verb in this context: “to evacuate” means “to empty out”, sometimes anatomically.

In TV shows about sewing and stitching, the word “seamstress” has now been replaced by “sewer” – to render it gender-neutral, presumably. But “sewer” also has another meaning, related to the function
of drains.

It wouldn’t, I think, happen in French.


Inside Europe, the BBC’s three-part TV series exploring the background to Brexit and its context, is proving to be one of the most informative and engaging broadcasts on the subject. It contains a “quest” element – even though we know the outcome, as we see David Cameron traipse around the chancelleries of Europe seeking a pre-referendum deal.

There is also an element of political glamour – watching what happens when all these powerful figures mingle – Macron, Merkel, Tusk, Juncker and Barnier, and the powers behind the powers, too, like Martin Selmeyr, the influential German civil servant, known as the “éminence grise” of Brussels.

Seldom named, but usually visible is the richly tressed blonde president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaitė. You can’t miss her. In this company of political intrigue, Cardinal Richelieu would have been in his element.

Produced by the veteran Norma Percy with Brook Lapping productions, the programmes have had “access” to information at the highest level. Moreover, the tone is intelligent and reflective and doesn’t, as so many annoying news programmes do, ask politicians to hurry up with their answers – “in five seconds, please, as we’re out of time”.

It’s a three-part series, with the final next Monday, and the first two available on BBC iPlayer. Well worth it: an education in itself.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4