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Learn Latin

Learn Latin |

Lesson 21

When you say you weigh 12 stone, 4lbs, do you know where the ‘lb’ comes from?

Latin, of course. Our imperial system of measurement is officially known as British Imperial, but it is in fact rooted in ancient Rome.

‘Lb’ is short for ‘libra’, itself the Latin for a pound. It’s also the word for a pair of scales – thus the star sign libra, with its scales.

Latin pounds were divided into twelve ounces (unlike our sixteen). The Latin for ounce is ‘uncia’ (where we get the word ounce from), which literally means the twelfth part of something. Most Roman measurements were divided into twelfths.

The basic unit of Roman currency was the ‘as’ – originally a bronze coin and later a copper one. The most famous Roman coin – which often crops up in Asterix’s adventures – was the sestertius, which was the equivalent of two-and-a-half asses. Sestertius, in fact, literally means ‘two and a half’. It’s short for ‘semis tertius’ – ‘the third half’, i.e. two and a half.

The silver coin, the quinarius, was worth two sestertii, or five asses. The valuable denarius was worth four sestertii.

Roman length is, again, very familiar, being based around the foot, or the ‘pes’, just like our imperial measurement. The Roman foot was just a little less than our own modern foot.

One-and-a-half pedes was that familiar Biblical measurement, the cubit, or, in Latin, ‘cubitum’: Noah’s Ark was said to be 300 cubits long by fifty cubits wide.

For road distances, the unit was a ‘passus’, a pace or a double step. Our distance term, the mile, comes from the Latin ‘mille passus’ – a thousand paces or a Roman mile. An eighth of a mile – which racing fans call a furlong – was, in Rome, a ‘stadium’.

The ways of measuring volume are pleasantly familiar, too. A vessel of ten cubic feet was called an amphora, as in the Greek word for a jar. These were hefty things – a cubic foot is the equivalent of about seven gallons. Half an amphora was an ‘urna’, as in our urns.

On another front, the Latin abbreviation is under threat in English. The Government Digital Service wants to ban i.e., etc and e.g. because they will apparently ‘make reading difficult’ for foreigners. Utter rot, of course.

See if you can translate the full versions of these familiar abbreviations:


Harry Mount


1. Requiescat in pace – May he/she rest in peace. Good use of the subjunctive. 2. Deo volente – God willing. A lovely little ablative absolute.

3. Nota bene – Note well. A handy imperative.

This story was from October 2016 issue. Subscribe Now