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You Got Latin in My English! Literary Terms

This post is the first in a new series called "You Got Latin in My English!" This series focuses on Latin terms that are commonly used in English; I provide the literal meanings of the terms and then explain how to use them in context. Many people have trouble with Latin words and phrases because their meanings aren't usually obvious and because many terms sound similar, so I've created this series to help those people get a handle on these terms.


This is the first official post in this series, but I previously addressed how to use the very common Latin abbreviations e.g., i.e., and etc. in another post, so feel free to read that first. In this post, I focus on seven terms that relate to literature, drama, and film. After reading this post, you will be able to better understand and converse about narrative forms and types of writing. The terms that I explain below are alter ego, deus ex machina, dramatis personae, in medias res, magnum opus, non sequitur, and omnibus.


Alter Ego

Literal Translation: "another self"

This noun has several related meanings, but the most common use in literature and film is to refer to a character's secondary identity. This includes various superheroes' secret identities, as well as characters' secondary personalities (e.g., Mr. Hyde is the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll). Another common usage is to refer to a fictional character who serves as a stand-in for a real person (often the author); such counterparts may be fictionalized versions of the real person (such as "Charlie Kaufman" in the film Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman) or separate characters who simply represent the voice and/or mannerisms of the real person (such as Little Women's Jo March, a stand-in for author Louisa May Alcott).


Outside of a literary context, the term alter ego can be used to represent a very close friend or even a famous person whom one feels a very strong kinship with. This usage is given in the third example sentence below; the first two examples relate to the literary definitions:

Bruce Wayne funds the exploits of his alter ego (Batman) with his vast fortune. Famed author Philip Roth often centers his novels around his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Amelia has become Liza's alter ego, as they now share not just experiences but opinions.

Deus Ex Machina

Literal Translation: "god from a machine"

A deus ex machina is an event in a story that suddenly and inexplicably resolves a seemingly impossible problem in an unmotivated way. In other words, it is as if "god" (the story's author) has reached into the story's "machinery" to manipulate the plot and bring about a desired course of events. There are many examples from throughout media, but my favorite is when the T. Rex bursts into the visitors' center in the film version of Jurassic Park, attacking the velociraptors that were about to devour the protagonists.


Many view deus ex machina in a negative light—after all, one should generally strive to resolve a plot in a way that at least makes sense in retrospect. However, as my example shows, these moments do tend to bring surprise, and they can be very entertaining. (That T. Rex has no reason show up there at that key point, certainly, but the moment when it bursts through the walls is awesome.)


Here are a couple uses of deus ex machina in sentences:

Many have criticized the story for the deus ex machina in which a minor character parachutes in at the last second to save the heroes from a bear attack. Gina's betrayal is no deus ex machina; there were plenty of hints that she was dissatisfied.

Dramatis Personae

Literal Translation: "people in a drama"

You may be familiar with dramatis personae from reading old plays by Shakespeare and others. In the literary tradition, the print version of a play would begin with a section labeled "Dramatis Personae," in which all the characters would be listed, often with a brief description. Sometimes, as in the programs for a particular performance, this section also lists the actors' names.


In more general terms, dramatis personae can refer to any group of people who play a key role in a dramatic event. I mean "dramatic" here metaphorically, to mean "important and/or exciting"—not literally "in a work of drama." You can use this term to refer to real life, in other words. See the second example below (the first relates to the traditional literary meaning):

"Endgame," by Samuel Beckett, has a dramatis personae of just four characters. The dramatis personae in the health care bill's failure include Sens. McCain and McConnell.

In Medias Res

Literal Translation: "in the midst of things"

Most stories begin at the beginning, setting up the key action carefully and in chronological order. Some, however, do not. A story is said to begin in medias res if the first moments occur in the middle of the main action. Often, such stories will later flash back to the moments before the start of the story—for instance, to explain how the hero got into such a difficult situation—before returning to show what happens later on. Some famous examples include Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and the films Dr. Strangelove and The Usual Suspects.


Use in medias res as an adjective. As with all other Latin phrases, this one does not ever need any hyphens. Here are a couple examples:

"Deadpool" begins in medias res to poke fun at the conventions of superhero cinema. The in medias res plot structure originated in the ancient Greek and Indian oral traditions.

Magnum Opus

Literal Translation: "great work"*

The term magnum opus has pretty much the same meaning as its literal translation: It refers to any great work of literature, art, or any other field—often one that is particularly impressive in scale. In particular, it refers to the greatest work of a person's career; any great work can be a magnum opus in a vacuum, but when referring to a given person, there can be only one magnum opus. (For instance, Moby-Dick is Herman Melville's magnum opus.) Here are a couple examples:

At nearly 6 minutes and using multiple styles, "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a true magnum opus. Mary Shelley's magnum opus has been adapted in film and other media over 30 times.

* To be clear, "great" here means some combination of "large," "famous," and "excellent"; "work" refers to a single achievement, not to a person's efforts more generally.

Non Sequitur

Literal Translation: "it does not follow"

Non sequitur has its origins in logic, where it referred to a conclusion that did not follow from the preceding argument. However, today, it is most commonly used to refer to a plot event, line of dialogue, or other component that does not follow from the preceding events, dialogue, etc. A non sequitur can be a mistake (such as when an author accidentally removes a transition between scenes) or intentional (perhaps to create a humorous effect, as in surrealist works). Click here for a classic case from The Room.


Here are some examples of how to use non sequitur in a sentence:

After completing the deposit, Al asked the teller for "the kung pao chicken"—a non sequitur that only he found humorous. It is a non sequitur to argue that, because a person is rich, they must be intelligent.

Omnibus

Literal Translation: "for all"

An omnibus is a collection of independent works in a single volume. Traditionally, this referred only to books (such as a collection of all of an author's short stories), but it can now also be used to refer to music and film (e.g., box sets), among other media. This term can be either a noun or an adjective. Here are a couple example uses:

I treasure the omnibus collection of 20 classic novels that my grandparents bought me. All of R.E.M.'s recordings have finally been gathered in omnibus form: a 20-CD box set.

* Interestingly, "omnibus" is also the origins of the the modern word "bus"; back in the 19th century, an "omnibus" was a carriage or other conveyance that was meant to carry many members of the public. It was so named because it was meant "for all" people to ride. By the time automotive buses came around, this term was usually shortened to just "bus," with "omnibus" eventually falling out of favor in this meaning.

That's all for this edition of You Got Latin in My English! Are there any other Latin terms that you would like me to explain in a future post in this series? If so, let me know in the comments or via email (info@elevationediting.com). And of course, if you don't want to worry about the proper usage of these terms—or about making sure your writing is grammatical, clear, concise, and well-structured—then please request a quote or consultation at ElevationEditing.com. I'd love to help you improve your writing!

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