How to Read a Latin Dictionary

Ursula Georges, alias Ursula filia Georgii, alias Ursula Whitcher

A Dictionary Entry

Using a Latin dictionary can be daunting. Here, for instance, is the beginning of the entry for honestas in A Latin Dictionary by Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short. (This dictionary may be found online at the Perseus Project,

This article is an introduction to the Latin language, aimed at someone with a Latin-English/ English-Latin dictionary in hand. It ends with tricks for constructing grammatically correct mottoes in a sixteenth-century style, without knowing Latin grammar!

Word Endings, Not Word Order

In English, word order conveys meaning: "The goat eats grass" and "Grass eats the goat" mean fundamentally different things. If you looked up the words goat, eat, and grass in a (theoretical) English-to-English dictionary and then tried to string them together, you would end up with the sentence "Goat eat grass," which makes you sound like a small child, but is still comprehensible.

However, if you try the same strategy with a Latin-to-English dictionary, you will end up with the sentence "capella edo herba," which, if we translate it back again, means "I, the goat grass, eat."

How do you say "The goat eats grass" in Latin, then?

It could be:

Note that both nouns and verbs change form, and it's this form, not the word order, that tells us that the goat is eating the grass and not the other way around. (Technically, the word order changes the emphasis-- but it's the difference between "The goat eats grass" and "The goat eats grass," not a change in meaning.

Rule #1: Don't trust the English-Latin half of your dictionary!

Always check the meaning of a word in the Latin-English half (or even a bigger dictionary.) You might miss subtleties, or confuse words altogether.

Verbs (Conjugating)

English verbs change depending on the subject: I love, but my friend loves, and yesterday I loved. (In Latin these are amo, amat, and amavi.) However, verbs in Latin change much more than English verbs do: we usually change tense by adding helping verbs (I will love!), while Latin indicates most changes in tense by altering the verb itself (amabo). Latin can also indicate a subject just by the form of a verb: amo means "I love," but amas means "you love."

Latin dictionary entries for verbs include several different forms of a verb, called the principal parts, to help you build the right forms for the various subjects and tenses. (This is called conjugating the verb.) Let's look at some examples:

amo -are, to love passionately or fondly

We've seen already that amo means "I love." This form is called the first principal part. The dictionary heading for a Latin verb always means "I ____."

The -are means that we are supposed to remove the o from the first principal part and add are to form the second principal part, amare, which means "to love." The second principal part always means "to ____."

Since amo, amare is a regular verb (in fact, it's the first one that almost everyone learns!), we only need the first two principal parts to decline it fully. Let's look at a more complicated verb:

caedo caedere cecidi caesum, to cut, cut down, strike, beat

We've already seen that caedo means "I cut," or, more poetically, "I slaughter," and caedere means "to slaughter."

cecidi is past tense; it means "I slaughtered." The third principal part always means "I ___ed."

caesum is a neuter perfect passive participle. In other words, it's an adjective that means "having been slaughtered." We'll look at the way adjectives change later: for now, just note that the fourth principle part means "having been _____ed."

Nouns (Declining Cases)

Latin nouns can be feminine, masculine, or neuter. (This is true in several modern languages, such as German.) The gender is grammatical; it may or may not have anything to do with real life. (Words have gender, but people have sex!)

Latin nouns change according to their function in a sentence. This is true of English pronouns: "He cut me" means something quite different than "I cut him."

The different forms of nouns are called cases; the process of forming them is called declension. Here's a table, using the feminine noun capella, or she-goat.

Case Conjugated Noun Translation Grammar Pronoun
Nominative capella goat subject she
Genitive capellae of the goat --- of her
Dative capellae to/ from the goat --- to/ from her
Ablative capella with/ by the goat --- with/ by her
Accusative capellam goat object her

This table only shows one goat: for plural goats, you'd need another whole table!

Nouns fall into various groups that conjugate similarly, called declensions. Within a declension, nouns may still decline differently if they have different genders. However, all nouns of the same declension have the same genitive ending, so a dictionary entry for a noun gives the genitive and the gender. Here are some examples:

malum, -i, n. an apple.

malum is "an apple," while "mali" is "of an apple." Also, malum is neuter.

leo, -onis, m. a lion.

leo is "a lion," while leonis is "of a lion." Also, leo is masculine.

Adjectives Agree

Like nouns, adjectives decline. An adjective must agree with the noun it modifies in both number (singular or plural) and case (nominative, genitive, etc.) For example, lasciva capella means "a lusty goat," but lascivarum capellarum means "of the lusty goats." Similarly, candens capella means "shining-white goat," but candentum capellarum means "of the shining-white goats."

The dictionary entry for an adjective tells us the nominative singular form of an adjective for the different genders. Here are some examples:

lascivus, -a, -um, adj. In a good sense, playful, sportive.

This adjective has three endings, one each for feminine, masculine, and neuter, in that order.

fidelis, -e. adj. That can be trusted or relied upon, true, steadfast, faithful.

This adjective has two endings. fidelis could mean something masculine or feminine. fidele applies to something neuter: for example, iussum fidele is an order that can be trusted.

Hurrah for Adverbs!

Adverbs don't change at all! Some useful adverbs are semper ("always"), saepe ("often"), bene ("well"), optime ("in the best possible way, very well") and pessime ("in the worst possible way, very badly").

Some other common words don't change, either. Two of the most useful are et ("and") and non ("not").

How to Fake a Motto

Most of the following mottoes (the Marines' slogan is an obvious exception!) are taken from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources such as Alciato's Book of Emblems. These mottoes use words in their dictionary form; many lovely mottoes could be constructed on the same principles. (Be careful, of course, to substitute nouns for nouns, to ensure that adjectives agree in gender, and so on!)

Pairs of nouns

Vigilantia et Custodia = Wakefulness and Watchfulness

Furor et Rabies = Anger and Rage

Victoria limes = Victory (is) the Boundary


Video, et taceo = I see, and am silent


Sic frustra = Thus in Vain

Semper = Forever

Adverbs and Adjectives

Semper fidelis = Always Faithful (The marines!)

Semper pertinax = Always Firm

Nouns and Adjectives

Salus publica = the public good

Iusta vindicta = a just vengeance

Stealing from the Classics

anguis latet in herba = the snake hides in the grass (This is a quote from Vergil's Eclogues! Armed with the Latin text of a work popular in the Renaissance, such as the Aeneid or the Vulgate Bible, and a line-by-line translation, one could 'borrow' many other mottoes in truly period style.)

Sources for Further Reading

The Oxford Latin Dictionary (OLD)

Cassell's Latin Dictionary

The Perseus Project,

Wheelock's Latin

Reading Latin, 2 volumes, Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell

Reading Medieval Latin, Keith Sidwell

Alciato's Book of Emblems,

More Mottoes from Sixteenth-Century Sources, Jeff Lee,

By Ursula Whitcher, alias Ursula Georges