Learn Latin

How to Learn Latin From Your Things

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

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.

Why Learn Latin Everyday Words?

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 in Latin

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.

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.

So, how is it done?

Step 1: Selection of Items to Learn

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: Find the Latin equivivalent

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: Write the Word on a Note and Place on the Object

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!

Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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