How to Learn Latin from your things

Condimenta Latina.

Condimenta Latina.

This is a picture of our spices. In Sweden, the bottles don't come with Latin names. So whence these sapient spices? Read on.

In his De ratione studii, the grand humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam gave great advice on how to learn expressions, sayings, and proverbs. In this article, I'll show you how to adapt his easy technique to learn the Latin vocabulary of everyday things.

For more techniques, read this article about improving your Latin in 10 minutes a day.

You may conclude that learning the names of everyday things is a waste of time for Latinists. I disagree. 

To paraphrase Erasmus, we must master the vocabulary of the basic domains (place names, animals, clothes, furniture etc.) because from them authors from every age have drawn comparisons and metaphors. They are the building blocks.

But there is another reason as well.

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Knowing the names of everything around you, creates confidence, a feeling that you've mastered a domain. To devilish self-doubt, you'll reply, "I may not know this word [insert word], but I do know the names of all the furniture in my home".

This sounds strange but knowing the words for everything around you is tangible evidence of progress, which otherwise is so elusive and perfidious: We don't see the plant grow and so think it doesn't.

But learning this vocabulary takes time which many rarely have. So what can we do? Learn it without studying hard?

Pie in the sky?

Sounds tasty, but no.

How to learn the everyday items

So we will look to that Dutch humanist to guide our step. The technique comes from his fascinating De ratione studii (1512), where he provides practical tips while setting out his views on learning Latin.

He suggests dressing the walls and everyday objects with proverbs, expressions, sayings, even carving them into rings and drinking cups so that you're surrounded by them and learn them while doing other things.

This brings us back to the sapient spices I spoke of in the beginning:

Recently, with my help, my girlfriend used this method to learn the names of the spices we use most often.

Chili hackad o basilika, peppar, vitlök learn Latin with Latinitium.png

This has had a tremendous effect. After just a few weeks,  she now knows them all, just from seeing them every day when we cook. No studying.

Once you've put up the pieces of paper, you'll see the Latin words constantly: going for coffee in the kitchen, taking out the trash, you'll see them and quickly forge a lasting link between them and the object to which they refer cutting out, so to speak, the middleman.

Erasmus, ratio studii, learn latin with Latinitium

So, how is it done?

Step 1: selection of items

First off, you need to select the items whose names you want to learn.

It's a question of taste, time, and level. Some start with basic vocabulary, eg.

  • door

  • table

  • window

  • oven

Others want to cover everything in a particular room, e.g. 

  • door handle

  • lamp wick

  • shelf

  • curtain

Choose a strategy and start. As the ink on your list dries, it's time to prepare for the hunt, that noble quest for the right Latin word.

Step 2: Finding the Latin

There are many places to go to find the right Latin word: Of the primary resources, time-trusted dictionaries are the best.


Let's first look at the vernacular–dictionaries. They are legion but I will name only the most exhaustive and well known:

To these volumes of the 19th century, I will add the eminent Lexicon Latinum, written by David Morgan, and now continued by Patrick Owens. It will not only supply many words that you would look for in vain elsewhere but also discuss differences in meaning.

If you are really interested in learning how similar words differ, you should consult dedicated dictionaries of Latin synonyms

Illustrated works


Another resource is the Orbis Pictus Latinus by Herman Koller. It contains ca. 1700 words from the classical and early modern period, many with illustrations.

In the same vein, but geared towards children and novice learners – though many a professor would struggle with naming them all – is First 1000 words Latin, thematically organised pictures of everyday things with their Latin names. It has been corrected by Patrick Owens.

Online groups

Other great resources are the forums and facebook groups online. 

Do this exercise together with some friends, share the burden of looking up words and talk about which one would be the best fit.

For this, I recommend the Facebook groups dedicated to Latin. These are some of them: 

  • Teaching Latin for Acquisition,

  • Latin teacher idea exchange,

  • Learning Latin

The people in them are kind and helpful.

Now that the elusive words are in your net, what's next?

Step 3: Material and placement

Next, you need to get some paper, preferably thick and brightly colored to stand out a bit.  

Avoid post-its, since they don't stick well to softer surfaces and tend to drop to their doom after a short while. 

Write large enough to see the words from across the room, or wherever you usually are in that particular room.

If you spend a lot of time on a chair or more horizontally, consider placing the slips so you can see them from that position.

And when you know them all…

For extra credits 

Let us now return to the Dutch humanist's sage advice. But with a twist.

When windows have given way to fenestrae, and tables to mensae, when your palette no longer remembers basil, but savors ocimum, then take out a new piece of paper.

Search for familiar words, e.g. mensa in a Latin dictionary or in a corpus (e.g. PHI) and write out a phrase or proverb containing the word, for instance, secunda mensa ("dessert") or mensae tempus ("meal time"). 

Then do this with any expression, or proverb you come across.

These things might look small but they will amount to much.

Tametsi singula per se pusilla uidentur, tamen in unum collata acervum doctrinae thesaurum lucro augent.
— Erasmus, Ratio studii

Don't give up

One last word on finding the right Latin word. It may seem easy, nothing more than opening a dictionary. 

But this is not always so. 

Conflicting answers, obscure definitions, or no answer at all, conspire to stop you. But don't let it, ne hastas abieceris

If you hesitate on which word to choose, consult all the dictionaries, run to the dictionaries of Latin synonyms (you can read about them here), and ask people. 

Remember to have fun! Happy covering-your-home-in-Latin-words!

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