Little bits of Latin we're losing

Verbal Energy column: When do you use 'viz.' and 'etc.'?

I ran into an old acquaintance on the train the other day, one I hadn't seen for a while, long enough, in fact, to have wondered: Is this one still around?

But then there it was on the page – on page after page.

The acquaintance in question was not a person but a word, or actually an abbreviation – viz. It's short for videlicet, which is Latin for "in other words" or "that is." It is conventionally read aloud as "namely."

For example, "[S]omething seems missing from the polemics and practices of the New Urbanists: viz., a recognition that a certain kind of social order is a prerequisite for traditional urbanism."

The book I was reading in which viz. kept whizzing around was, as my sample suggests, a scholarly book, by a professor at Notre Dame University. He was someone – if I may presume to judge by having met him briefly at the conference where I discovered his book – old enough to have some memory of the Latin mass. If there's anyone for whom Latin is a living language, it would be someone like him.

Viz. is one of several little bits of Latin that are useful space-savers in written English even though they aren't used in conversation – at least not any conversation I've been a party to.

These terms seem too fussy to find a place in contemporary American journalistic writing. They sometimes (often?) mark a piece as scholarly, or least academic, writing – which is why journalists don't like them. (A certain professional antipathy exists between academics and journalists with regard to writing style. Given the two groups' interdependence, I think they should just get over it.)

One English university counsels forthrightly: "The rule about using these Latin abbreviations is very simple: don't use them."

But I'd hate to see them disappear altogether.

"No." as an abbreviation for "number," as in "the No. 1 priority at the White House this week" is another of these. It's the abbreviation for "numero" – the Latin ablative (I'm told by my dictionary) – but it is said aloud as "number." The Monitor's style calls for its use in situations like my White House example.

This is one of those rules I'm glad to etch into consciousness and not have to think about again.

Two others in this group are i.e. (id est, that is) and e.g. (exempli gratia, for example). They are widely confused with each other, if rants on the Web are any indication.

But the bit of Latin that can cause editors trouble is et cetera. It is actually used in conversation, in its Latin form, not rendered as "and so forth."

Some sticklers argue that however widely translated et cetera is as "and so forth," it properly means "and the rest." For instance, "In preparation for his trip, he got his tent, sleeping bag, etc., out of the attic."

Especially in an informal context, it's useful to avoid detailing air mattress, boots, and the like. Here etc. becomes shorthand for "all the stuff that he has for a camping trip."

Note that "and the like" is three words to do the work of etc. This is why people like etc.

It's when etc. becomes a stand-in for "yada yada yada" that we get into trouble.

Once upon a time, when I was in Warsaw covering Polish parliamentary elections, I was pressed to enter a competition to forecast the winners. I predicted that the "ETC" party would win 3 percent of the vote. After I'd dropped my entry form into the box, I had a forehead-slapping, "What was I thinking?" moment; but I did win second prize. (I came in No. 2, in other words.)

P.S. – Does anybody actually write P.S. anymore? It's properly "postscript," the afterthought one adds below the signature of a letter – the afterthought that may turn out to be the most important part of the missive. "A Woman seldom writes her Mind but in her Postscript," Sir Richard Steele wrote in The Spectator in 1711. This was before the rules of Capitalization had been settled along modern lines.

But in the age of word processing rather than writing, there's no need to reveal the hierarchy of thoughts and afterthoughts to one's e-mail correspondents.

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