Latin For You

Teaching and translating ancient Latin since 1986

Cutis Inscripta - Inked in Latin

Latin is a great language for a tattoo.  There is a solid permanence which both a tattoo and the Latin language both express.  Also, you can almost always say it more briefly, but with greater punch, in Latin rather than English.

But if you want to inscribe some Latin on your skin forever, it is worth the time and extra expense to make sure the Latin is correct.  A typical tattoo costs about $150 and, if you need it removed, you're looking at another $350 (not including the pain!).  So . . .

Right Before You Write: Think Before You Ink 

Custom work - just for you!  I charge only $50.00 for any Latin translation (unless it is really long) and only $25.00 for a short phrase, but for that you are guaranteed that the Latin you put on yourself for life will be perfect; the Latin will not only be accurate, but I will work with you to write something that expresses your thought and sounds good.  After all, it's your skin and my reputation on the line.

Double-check for peace of mind!  And if you have a Latin text and you just need someone to make sure you've got it exactly right, I will do that for only $25.00!  A small price to pay for peace of mind.  Just send me your request here to get the ball rolling.

I see there is now a cost placed on a bad tat.  In July, 2012 a Nova Scotia tattoo parlor was ordered to pay almost $9,000 in compensation to a client who had a tattoo mis-spelled (read the National Post article here for the details). Compared to $9,000, the $50 fee, to make sure you got your tattoo just right, is nothing: a useful little insurance policy for both artist and client.

There are loads of examples of tattoos with everything from spelling mistakes all the way to pure gibberish.  I've provided a few examples so that you can see for yourself why you want to get it right before you write.

One other thing before we get to the 'fun'.  There is more to Latin than tattoos.  Have a stroll and see some of the other uses of Latin and the ancient world: a catalogue of novels. etc. set in the ancient Mediterranean, some classics fun, even a little about the Latin language.  Who knows, maybe the ink you get done today, could become the interest of a life-time.

BTW, I am currently doing research about Latin tattoos.  Right now I am compiling data (images of tattoos as well as stories).  So, if you have a moment, could you please email me with your tattoo story?  I am interested in why someone chooses Latin to be included in a tattoo as well as the thinking behind the choice of text, image, size and placement of the tattoo.  This paper will be presented at the Classical Association of Canada Annual Conference.  Obviously no names will be used and any images of a tattoo will only be used with the individual's permission.

Gender matters

To some people's embarassment, gender matters.  After all, you wouldn't call a 'he' a 'she' and yet some people do!  Here the tattoo says "Unbeaten" or "Unconquered" using the now famous "Invictus" from the movie of the same name.  The only problem is that the wearer is a woman.  She is saying that she is an unconquered man.

She needed "Invicta"

The same thing goes here.  This young lady (and there is no doubt that we are all staring at a female form) has stated that she is the man she is.  'Qui' refers to a man.  If she wants to say 'I am who I am', she needs to change 'qui' to 'quae' - 'Ego sum quae sum'.  The good news is that if you meet her, you won't likely see her tattoo, unless you're at the beach.

She flies on her own wings - Alis volat propriis

This is a great line which combines grace and self-confidence in equal parts.  It is a very common line to use either by itself or with some art.  Unfortunately, it is also one of the more regularly misspelled Latin tags.

This (Alis Volat Propris) is wrong

And so is this (Alis Volat Propiis)

Oh, and this one (Allis Volat Propriis) is wrong too

This one is correct!


Alis Volat Propriis

Sometimes things really go off the rails!

When someone takes a longer English sentence and tries a little Latin prose composition, things can get seriously messy.  Here are a couple of examples of just how badly things can go.

Contemno victus, diligo silenti etc. is what seems to be on the inside of this guy's arms.  It is supposed to read 'I hate the living; I love the dead and the rest.'  Not even close.  It actually reads, "I, having been conquered, despise; I love for the silent and the rest."

Victus is not 'the living' (that would be vivus) and as the direct object it would be vivos.

silenti can mean 'the dead' but it needs to be plural to mean 'the dead' and accusative (direct object again) which would be silentes.

A good Latin version would have been something like: Vivos contemno, silentes (or mortuos) diligo.


The tattoo below should be a warning to all tattoo artists.  It is in your best interests to help your clients 'get it right'.  Do you want someone with pipes like these coming back to you because his tattoo is gibberish?

The first line of Tibi crede fuit animus / Nam omnes perient / Non omnes vere vivunt is so bad that I'm not exactly sure what it is supposed to say.  I'm guessing something along the lines of 'Believe in your spirit (or believe you have a spirit) / For everyone will die / not everyone truly lives.

The last line is fine.

The middle line has one mistake - there is no such word as perient.  The form should be peribunt = they will die.  Since the inevitability of death is the key idea, I would have gone with omnibus pereundum (death is for everyone).

The first line has real problems.  As it is, it says 'Trust yourself; a spirit/soul was'.  Tibi crede means 'Trust yourself.' and Tibi fuit animus means 'You had a soul.'  But as this stands, you can't jam the two together.  Tricky to try and guess what the original thought was behind the line, but I would hazzard something like: Crede te animum habere (Trust that you have a soul).


A Famous piece of non-Latin

Perhaps the most well-known piece of non-Latin is Illegitimi Non Carborundum, which supposedly means 'Don't let the bastards get you down.'  It is not totally fair to say that it has no meaning.  It means 'unlawful men are not carbon silicate'.  The story is that it was first used by British Intelligence officers at the beginning of World War II (their version was illegitimis non carborundum since the agent of a gerundive is in the dative).  It was also the personal motto of 'Vinegar' Joe Stilwell who spelled it 'illegitimi' (making the dative nominative).  Curiously, the Harvard fight song Ten Thousand Men of Harvard begins with illegitimum non carborundum (carbon silicate is unlawful).  The curious part is that the song was written by A. Putnam who was in the class if 1918, which means that either the song predates the British Intelligence officers, or Putnam wrote the song when he was in his mid-forties at the earliest.  I have not been able to find out exactly when the Harvard song was written (that would settle the matter).

There are bewildering number of variations of this line with people trying to make it more easily understood by readers who have no Latin and no knowledge of the original line.  Some of these variations as well as the original line(s) appear on the human torso.  Unfortunately, repetition and imitation does not make it nay better (but there is a worse example of imitating crap further down).

Here is General Stilwell's version:

One person reduced the number of illegitimi to one illegitimus, but that doesn't really make things any better.

If you want to say "Don't let the bastards wear you down", try this:

Tu Spuriis Non Opprimendus or

Spurii Ne Te Opprimant.

The worst one so far

I have to feel sorry for Danielle Lloyd.  The actress/model wanted a tattoo on her left shoulder which would read "He who diminishes me, only make me stronger."  What she got is nothing like that at all.  The photo here is a good one and clearly shows "Quis attero mihi tantum planto mihi validus" which means (roughly) 'I, who wear away for myself, I only set in place for myself, being strong'.  And to make matters worse, the I in the sentence has to be male.  What it should have read is something like this: "Quis me minuit, me firmat." or you could have a bit of a play on words with: "Quis me minuit, me munit." (which also has alliteration).  This is a perfect example of the value of getting a proper Latin translation.  You should read all of the comments (none flattering) about this tattoo.

More to Enjoy

Because you have made this the most popular page on my site, I felt I should treat you all to a few more gaffes and goofs that people have committed on their bodies.  We can thank these folks for providing us with some entertainment, but remember; if you don't want to find your tattoo here,

Get it right, before you write!

vereor vita non mors mortis is supposed to say 'I fear life, not the death of death.'  Not so much.  It actually says 'Being life, not the death of death, I am afraid.'  No indication of what this guy is afraid of.

This next one shows that knowledge is not democratic.  Someone went on yahoo answers and asked what the Latin was for 'My Children Are My Life'.  One answer that came back was "meus liberi meus vita".  Here is someone who trusted this answer (despite the fact that afterwards people posted this was nonsense).  None of these words go together.  It's the Latin equivalent of 'me children is me life'.

This next one just goes on and on; the writer just digging himself deeper and deeper.  The text (which is not entirely legible in the photo) is: "is est melior ut exsisto invisus pro quis ego sum quam ut exsisto diligo pro quis ego sum non".  The original English ran something like this: 'It is better to be hated for what I am than to be loved for what I am not'.  The Latin runs nothing like that.  It is more like this: 'he is better, as I exist hated, in proportion who I am than, as I exist, I love in proportion who I am not'.  Phew!

Here's another example of beauty and brains not always going together.  Young Ashley Dupre, whose horizontal escapades with Eliot Spitzer brought down that Governor of New York, decided to have a Angelina Jolie type tattoo put ion the place Ms Jolie chose.  Her Latin bikini line says 'tutela valui'.  If you go on-line you'll read the guffaws of classicists who are entertained by how bad the Latin is.  To be honest, I have to say this is not the worst I've seen (if you've read through the above, you've seen lots of worse Latin).  The main issue is that there are too many ways this con be translaated into English.  'valui' can mean 'I was strong', 'I was well', 'I prevailed'.  Given the context of her life, I'm guessing 'I prevailed'.  'tutela' can either be 'guardian' or 'guardianship' and, in this form, can either be subject of the verb or express means (i.e., by a guardian, through guardianship).  So, you get "I was strong through guardianship" or "I prevailed by a guardian" (or some combination thereof).  Is this what Ms Dupre means to say?  The fact that we have to ask the question is a sure sign that the Latin line was not well chosen.  In the meantime those who wish may admire the canvas, if not the art.

This might seem risky, but I'm going to get two people mad at me in one go.  Father and son decide to get matching tattoos.  They opt for "father and son, brothers forever".  Not a bad thought.  If only that was what the Latin said.  What the two gentlemen below have is "father and son, brother infinity".  So, just who is this brother infinity?  Now semper fratres would have been perfect.

My goodness, the errata just keep on coming!!

"You make me strong"  It is such a great thought and a wonderful acknowledgement of someone's positive influence in this person's life.  But, we have honoured our friend with some pretty awful Latin.  What we have below is "Being strong, I save you people for myself".  In this line, fortis is correct and that's about it.

The fancy script below wants to exclaim "freedom for the oppressed".  But, like the old presbyterian hymn, 'there is no health in us'.  liber means "free" or even "book".  oppresso is singular, so evidently only one person (a man, by the way) is being offered freedom.  Oh, and de means "down from" or "about".  So what we really have here is "a book about an oppressed man".

If you have trouble reading the line is situ it says ego mos vitualamen totus illi ego diligo.  The plan was to say "I would sacrifice everything for the ones I love".  Never truer were the words "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley".  What we have here, if we can even call it a sentence, is "I, being total tradition am a sacrifice for the one, I love".  What I have found is that someone posted on-line that they had four Latin versions of the English  "I would sacrifice everything for the ones I love".  This was one of the options.  There is an answer posted that all four Latin lines are rubbish.  Either the answer came too late, was ignored or we have a heck of a co-incedence.  BTW, the answer offered was Illis quos amo deserviam (literally, I will serve those whom I love).  Not bad, not bad.  Very Ciceronian as the author says.

Desederio Domini looks reasonable - "for the love of God".  A minor point is that there is a typo.  It should say Desiderio.  More troubling is the choice of the word desiderium at all.  This word does mean it love, but it is more a longing or desire for something that is lost or distant.  It also tends to be used for an object of passionate desire.  The object of ones desiderium is a lover.

I can understand getting tired of a project and stopping mid-way through.  But in the middle of a tattoo?  Something that will be with you forever?  I think this person wants to say "I can even feel you".  They found some of the words they wanted quite easily, but they gave up when it came to the word "can".  "Can" doesn't fit into the sentence, even if we are going to start inserting English into a Latin line because we can be bothered to work out or find out what the Latin would be.  I would have said Ego te vero sentio (I actually feel you).  We use the word "can" in English way more than they did in Latin.  One final note, vos is plural, so this person evidently has several objects of affection.

Everything here was going so well, until we got to the end.  It looks like someone typed this out on Word and Word corrected the Latin into the closest English it could think of.  As a result, permanet became permanent.  Let me give everyone a hint: if you are typing any foreign language into Word, expect to a red line under every word.  If you DON'T see a red line, you likely have an error (introduced by Word, but an error nonetheless).  BTW, this tattoo now reads: "Shade passes, light, they last."

Here is an example of a tattoo with two different errors.  The first and most obvious is that the word 'God' is spelled wrong: Dues rather than Deus.  This could be a typo or another Word induced hiccup.  The other problem is tantum.  Yes, it means only, but a very different only.  It goes with the verb, regardless of where you put it in the sentence.  So this says "God can only judge me." (but he can't do anything else).  What we need here is a word that describes God as the only one who can judge me, bcause the thought here is that 'God alone can judge me'.

I actually like it when something contemporary is translated into Latin, particularly a phrase or motto (Latin works well in this type of writing).  The trick is in knowing exactly what the English is saying and that usually means understanding the grammar that is underlying.  Here is a good example.  Unless I miss my guess, someone wants the line from Aerosmith's Dream On put in Latin and on their back.  The line is "Sing for the laughter, sing for the tear".  This tattoo managed to NONE of the words right.  If we try to put this back into English, we get, "I, laughter, sing on behalf of; I, tear, sing on behalf of."  To be fair, it is possible to read the second half as "I sing for a tear", but since Risus has to be the subject of Sono, Lacrima will be assued to be the subject of the second Sono.

Anyway, it should be "Sing!", not "I sing" and you actually have to stop and ask what "for" means here (it is a word in English that gets used for a lot of different things).

I hate to call out someone who obviously has a love of Latin literature and, especially Catullus, but an error is an error.  Here we have the entire text of Catullus 85.  An intense (8 verbs) 2 line poem about Catullus' ambivalent feelings towards his love, Lesbia/Clodia.  Everything looks fine until we get to sentio.  Maybe someone had a stutter, but an extra syllable snuck in and we have sententio, which isn't a word (it's close to sententia, but that still leaves a typo and a weird sentence - "I don't know to become by opinion and I am tortured").  Measure twice, cut once.

plura venient

The Latin in Tattoos

I hate to banish this section to the bottom of the page, but I also hate to interrupt the flow of the above.  So, for the grammarians out there (and those who were diligent enough to make it this far), I should say a bit about tattoos in ancient Rome.  They certainly were aware of tattoos and had some vocabulary:

nota = tattoo (it generally means a mark or sign, so it can also mean 'brand')

pingere = to tattoo (its basic meaing is paint or draw and so the extension is obvious)

pictus = tattooed (from the above verb, so 'painted')

The first reference that I can find to tattoos is in Cicero's De Officiis 2.25 when he mentions that Alexander of Pherae trusted a tattooed servant more than his wife: (eum quidem conpunctum notis Thraeciis destricto gladio iubebat anteire. . . O miserum, qui fideliorem et barbarum et stigmatiam puaret, quam coniugem = He ordered him, marked with Thracian tattoos, to draw his sword and go ahead . . . O poor man, who thought a tattooed barbarian more faithful than his wife).

And none other than Virgil refers twice to tattooed peoples.  In the Georgics 2.114-15 he says that the furthest regions of the earth are cultivated, even where the Arabs and tattooed Geloni (pictosque Gelonos) live.  The Geloni were Scythians who lived north of the Black Sea.  He also mentions the tattooed (picti) Agathyrsi in the Aeneid (4.146) as an example of a peoples who roar as they worship Apollo.  The Agathyrsi were also Scythinas from the region of Romania.

Other references include:

Ammianus Marcellinus 31.2.14 - the Agathyrsi live next to the Geloni, their bodies and hair coloured blue; the commoners with fewer, smaller tattoos (notis), the nobles with more, larger ones.

Claudian In Rufinum 312 - and the Gelonian, who is pleased to tattoo his limbs with iron (membraque qui ferro gaudet pinxisse Gelonus).

We'll give the final word to the geographer Pomponius Mela who wrote during the reign of Claudius and says that the Agathyrsi tattoo (pingunt) their faces and limbs with tattoos (notis) that cannot be washed away.  This last reference is key, because notis pingere could just mean 'to paint with marks'.  And many cultures around the world, then and since, have used paint or pigment to decorate themselves temporarily.  The fact that these nota could not be washed off made them unusual to the Romans and identifies them as tattoos to us.