Mea culpae? Meae culpae? Meis culpis? Mea culpas?

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The following is a guest post by frequent LLOG commenter J.W. Brewer:

Someone forwarded me a link by a distinguished emeritus professor (I recognize the name, think I once saw him speak at a conference, have the impression his scholarly work is generally well-regarded by people whose judgment I trust) writing about current campus turmoil, and I was caught short by the sentence. “Reflexive mea culpae may buy temporary peace and goodwill but only invite more extreme demands.”

I got distracted from the substance of the piece (with which I largely agreed, give or take some matters of tone or emphasis) by the notion that this was not only pretentious but Wrong Wrong Wrong (so serves him right for letting pretension lead him into error).  Google books, however, suggests that it’s not an original error, and there are instances in English going back at least to the 1870’s.

What strikes me as distinctive about it is that e.g. “octopi” is “wrong” only because “octopus” happens not historically to have been a second-declension masculine Latin noun, which is something of a contingent historical fact about a particular lexeme that’s not immediately obvious from general principles. By contrast, I would think that any emeritus professor with a moderate recall of his schoolboy Latin ought to have had the intuition that you can’t pluralize the noun without pluralizing the accompanying possessive pronoun.  And indeed, the more plausible “meae culpae” is also attested in English, although the google books corpus also turns up uses in actual Latin running prose (more total hits than “mea culpae” but not sure about ratio if you back out the ones in a Latin rather than English context).

There’s a further difficulty, however, because the canonical use of “mea culpa” in the Latin text of the Confiteor is not in the nominative but the ablative, so pluralizing it arguably ought to get you “meis culpis,” but the first few pages of google books hits for that are all in Latin, not popped into English prose.

The deeper difficulty is that I now realize I’ve never learned how Latin handles use v. mention situations – if what you want to refer to is not multiple faults which are yours but multiple utterances (whether by you or by someone else) of the fixed phrase “mea culpa” (or multiple instances of the extended meaning “ritualized apology, not necessarily using that specific fixed form of words”) I have no reliable intuition as to how to inflect it for case in Latin (or even whether my intuition that the inflection of the noun and the possessive pronoun must match up with each other would be accurate). All of this makes sticking to “mea culpas” in an English context much more sensible, in my opinion. But I am curious if my intuition that it’s “wronger than ‘octopi’” (because the seeming error-as-a-matter-of-Latin is more obvious on general principles without lexeme-specific knowledge) seems convincing, or if I’m being insufficiently descriptivist and the only question is whether the number of English uses of the phrase is sufficient to make it a variant rather than, in English, an error.

The above is a guest post by J.W. Brewer.


  1. Noscitur a sociis said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 12:34 pm

    Along a not entirely unrelated vein, I remember thinking it might be interesting to see whether there was a point at which the "res" in res publica stopped being conjugated separately. I can't remember if I ever actually looked into it and if so what the results were, which I guess makes this comment not very interesting at all.

  2. Benedict Cox said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

    [1] meae culpae seems reasonable.
    [2] res publica has been declined [not conjugated] in both elements all the way through the millennia – although you may find individuals practising otherwise.

  3. Acilius said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 1:09 pm

    Latin usually does not decline nouns and adjectives when they are mentioned rather than used. That is in fact one of the reasons why "octopi" is so complex in its wrongness, that the Romans, unlike medieval scribes, did not decline foreign words at all until they'd forgotten that they were foreign. As long as the word carried its origin on its sleeve, every appearance of it was as much mention as it was use.

    So any attempt to make "meis culpis" mean "multiple instances of the sort of acceptance of responsibility that we habitually designate by the phrase mea culpa strikes me as gruesomely poor Latinity. By all means, let's stick with "mea culpas."

  4. languagehat said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

    Assentio Acilio (which I hope means "I agree with Acilius").

  5. Ken Miner said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    I have seen "magnus opus" and "modus operandus" from university professors; and novelist Lee Child, in his first novel Killing Floor, wanted to reverse "E Pluribus Unum" so he writes "E Unum Pluribus" (insead of Ex Uno Plures). It only gets worse.

    Those who expunged obligatory Latin and Greek from our university system apparently did not anticipate that people would go on trying to use them.

  6. Sili said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

    It may of course be pretentiousness, but couldn't it be reflex? If you're sufficiently familiar with declensions, you might apply them out of habit even where they don't apply.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

    FWIW, the emeritus professor in question received his B.A. in 1962, which is not nearly far enough back to make it 100% certain he formally studied Latin somewhere along the way, but perhaps a bit more likely than in more recent cohorts of academics? (One of the ways I can tell that highly-educated professionals of my own generational cohort, 25 years younger than that, have mostly never studied Latin is how frequently they misspell "de minimis" as "de minimus," because both spellings are consistent with the same pronunciation in English and the latter certainly looks like perfectly cromulent Latin unless you've actually studied the language.)

    Re inflecting "res publica" for case, Yale diplomas even unto this present day specify that they're issued in the name of the "Praeses et Socii Universitatis Yalensis in Novo Portu in re publica Connecticutensi," lest the reader think the bearer might have graduated from some other Universitas Yalensis in a location other than New Haven, Ct. But that's obviously in Latin, and one hopes carefully proofread Latin. I can imagine a transitional period where "res publica" might have come into English (or some other vernacular) as a loanword (ok, a compound loan word spelled as two words) but not yet have been fully domesticated as "republic."

  8. Keith said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 4:13 pm

    I would have avoided the problem altogether, by using "one mea culpa after another".

  9. Y said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 4:24 pm


  10. Mike said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    Perhaps a few nunc dimittitis or te deos would also bring peace.

  11. Y said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    In Italian, the plural of pater noster is paternostri or occasionally pater nostri (meaning either iterations of the prayer or beads). In English it is pater nosters, and likewise I vote for mea culpas.

  12. Sili said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 6:01 pm

    A small bell started chiming "your aculpa" in my head, but it was in reality His aculpa:

  13. Bill W said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    The legal expression "de minimis," meaning something too trivial to be concerned about, from the maxim "de minimis non curat lex," tends to be spelled "de minimus." I was once chewed out by a supervisor for fixing "de minimus" in something she had written.

  14. Bill W said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 6:38 pm

    The legal expression "de minimis," meaning something too trivial to be concerned about, from the maxim "de minimis non curat lex," tends to be spelled "de minimus." I was once chewed out by a supervisor for fixing "de minimus" in something she had written.

  15. Jenny Chu said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:04 pm

    Was it possible he was using it ironically? Did you find any mentions "octopi" or "not a single broccolo" in his other works?

  16. monscampus said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

    "Romani ire domus!" :-)

    It surprised me no end to find out the American plural of index is not indices as it should be and most American commentators seem to think per se is per say [sic]. As long as they're happy with it…

  17. TonyK said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:32 pm

    Why didn't he just say "my bads"?

  18. The Filter Dislikes Dainichi said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

    my bads?

  19. The Filter Dislikes Dainichi said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

    whoa, I swear I didn't read TonyK's comment before I posted mine.

  20. Matt said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 8:08 pm

    By all means, let's stick with "mea culpas."

    Can we at least get a bit Indic with it and use "mea culpa=s"?

  21. Bloix said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 9:02 pm

    "The legal expression "de minimis," meaning something too trivial to be concerned about, from the maxim "de minimis non curat lex," tends to be spelled "de minimus.""

    Only by illiterates. The correct spelling is de minimis. E.g., "Guidance: De Minimis Waste Contributor Settlement Methodologies,"

  22. Viseguy said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 9:20 pm

    I'm gonna speak ex cathedra here, even though the only seat I occupy is that of my pants: mea culpa is an English noun! Its plural is mea culpas. The fact that it's borrowed from Latin is irrelevant, immaterial, and inadmissible!

    I had an evidence professor in law school, the redoubtable Herbert Peterfreund, who insisted that all Latin legal terms were English words and had to be pronounced accordingly. Fair enough, but Prof. Peterfreund's idea of English pronunciation was that vowels were long (unless they were short), and the accented ones had to be not merely emphasized, but declaimed. Thus, not res (or rez) ipsa loquitur, but "REECE ipsa lockwittur!" And nunc pro tunc — New York legalese for "retroactively" (I don't think any other jurisdiction uses it) — was invariably rendered as "nunk pro TUNK!". He himself pronounced his surname as a hybrid, "peeterfroynd", and I've always regretted not having taken him to task for not pronouncing it "peeterFROOND!".

    ("I wish you what may sound like two things but is really one. I wish you a happy and a useful life." – Professor Herbert Peterfreund, NYU School of Law, addressing his evidence class on the occasion of his retirement.)

  23. Ken Miner said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 10:27 pm

    @ Viseguy I wonder how your professor would pronounce certiorari? In the courts there seem to be five or six different ways.

  24. John Swindle said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 10:50 pm

    re: de minimis, de minibus

    A Volkswagen van and T. rex
    Were having extravagant sex.
    Said the judge with a scowl,
    All the people may howl,
    But de minibus non curat lex.

  25. Viseguy said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 11:11 pm

    @Ken Miner: We didn't often talk about constitutional issues in evidence class, but "sir-shee-uh-RARE!-eye", undoubtedly. Or maybe "sir-see-uh-RARE-eye". But in any event not "care-kee-oh-RAHR-ee". (I know of no practicing lawyer who would pronounce it as KICK-er-oh would have, do you?)

  26. Frank Y. Gladney said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:10 am

    Polish _rzeczpospolita_ (written solid) is calqued on _res publica_. In high style you can decline both parts, thus genitive _rzeczypospoitej_, but you don't have to.

  27. rosie said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 4:07 am

    J.W. Brewer: the canonical use of “mea culpa” in the Latin text of the Confiteor is not in the nominative but the ablative

    Good point. For one thing, it is only the context of that Latin usage that entails it being in the ablative; if you use it out of that context, there is no corresponding reason for using the ablative. For another thing, by using that phrase as an English noun we have severed its links to Latin grammar; it has become an English noun not subject to the rules of Latin morphology. So I agree with Viseguy's conclusion. mea culpas, just like requiems, buses and rebuses.

  28. Adam F said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 4:34 am


    I think "per say" is closer than "per see" to the Latin pronunciation.

  29. Adrian Bailey said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 7:01 am

    The Bailey rule is use English -s plural with Latin words used in English.

  30. Rodger C said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 8:39 am

    Nobody seems to have brought up the fact that until about 100 years ago, Latin was taught in schools with English pronunciation all over the English-speaking world. That's where we get Law Latin pronunciations and other old set phrases, like "ee plooribus yoonum." So it's perfectly correct in that context from a historical viewpoint, but nowadays even people who've never studied Latin think it sounds silly, if they think about it at all.

    Perhaps the discussion should be adjourned sine die (rhymes with "tiny fly").

  31. Rodger C said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    vaɪvæt! vaɪvæt! vaɪvæt ridʒaɪnɑ!

  32. Terry Hunt said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    One of A.P. Herbert's Misleading Cases features an English judge admonishing a newly qualified barrister who pronounces Latin in what was then the new fashion of 'authentic pronunciation' ("Yoolius Kaisar", etc.), and explaining in detail why the historically 'incorrect' Law Latin pronunciations should be used in a legal context.

  33. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    @Rodger C: Yes, and I was somewhat taken aback when, as an undergraduate taking a "law for non-lawyers" course, I heard the professor pronounce "rationale" as /ræʃʌ'nɛɪli/; I had always supposed that it came from French, and thought of it as /ræʃʌ'nal/. I suspect that most non-lawyers do pronounce it more or less the latter way.

  34. Robert Coren said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    or if I’m being insufficiently descriptivist and the only question is whether the number of English uses of the phrase is sufficient to make it a variant rather than, in English, an error.

    Be that as it may, no finite number of uses will get me to accept criteria, bacteria, or phenomena used in the singular as other than errors. And don't get me started on phenomenae as the plural of that last.

  35. Xtifr said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 12:57 pm

    What puzzles me about people who claim that "octopi" is wrong is: why don't they also object to "octopuses"? I mean, why complain about mixing Latin and Greek rules, but not about mixing Greek and English rules? (And yes, I know there are a few people who do insist on "octopodes", but I consider them insane, though I do give them points for consistency.)

    It's my understanding that "octopus" actually entered the language via Scientific Latin, so despite it originally being Greek, pluralizing it as "octopi" actually makes a certain amount of sense. But the bottom line is: once something has actually entered English, then English rules apply. And English borrows so heavily from other languages that it's really hard to say "this and only this is the proper rule for English." One can argue that pluralizing by changing "us" to "i" is a rule of English. Not a common rule, but a rule of English nonetheless.

    All that being said, I'd probably opt for "mea culpas" myself.

  36. Xmun said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

    @John Swindle

    Thanks for the first good laugh of this morning. Did you read the limerick somewhere or did you make it up just now?

  37. Xmun said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

    By the way I'm writing here in NZ on Thursday morning before breakfast.

  38. Gene Callahan said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    But Jenny, while "octopi" is not from any language, "Broccolo" is perfectly correct Italian.

  39. John Swindle said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

    @Xmun: Thanks. It's mine, but not new. I published it someplace before but can't think where, and I've probably altered it in trying to remember it.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

    FWIW, I got an email from someone I know who favors a fifth option, namely "mea culpa's," which he thinks nicely emphasizes the use-v.-mention nature of the situation (which is a factor generally not present in pluralizing "octopus"). As someone who is sufficiently pro-apostrophe as to think that Celticists should ideally mind their p's and q's rather than their ps and qs, I have some sympathy for this (and wikipedia claims that using an apostrophe with s to pluralize foreign loanwords ending in a vowel was not uncommon in English in earlier centuries), but I am concerned that it might be too hard to distinguish from the heavily-deprecated/stigmatized "greengrocers' apostrophe."

  41. richardelguru said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    Then there's the old limerick:
    There was a young fellow called Rex
    Who exposed his small organ of sex,
    But he always got off,
    When the judges would scoff
    'De minimis non curat lex'

  42. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 5:43 pm

    Schoolboy classic (via Nigel Molesworth):
    Caesar adsum jam forte.

    and the venerable

    Sabile sabile eris ago, Fortibus es in aro
    Nobile nobile themis trux, Si vaticinem pes en dux

  43. Rodger C said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 7:19 pm

    @Robert Coren: /ræʃʌ'nɛɪli/ is complete news to me, but it suddenly makes perfect sense. Compare congeries: the few times I've heard it pronounced, people seem to want to make it French, whereas I'd rhyme it with "Ben and Jerry's."

  44. Viseguy said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 1:02 am

    I do recall hearing ra-shee-oh-NAIL-ee (rationale) — probably from Prof. Peterfreund — as a synonym for ratio decidendi in law school in the '70s.

  45. Robert Coren said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 10:06 am

    @Viseguy: Amusingly (to me), the professor from whom I heard the Anglicized-Latin pronunciation ofrationale was Paul Freund.

  46. L said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    My first thought was that the plural of "mea" is obviously "nostra."

    But that's wrong here, of course.

  47. Viseguy said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 12:40 am

    @Robert Coren: My professor was Harvard Law class of '36, so maybe it was indeed a case of Peterfreund stealing from Paul Freund.

    (Hmmm, Freund joined the Harvard faculty in 1939. Ah, well…)

  48. James Wimberley said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 9:46 am

    Is there any plural for "rhinoceros" that doesn't sound ridiculous?

  49. Robert Coren said,

    November 21, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    @James Wimberley asks: Is there any plural for "rhinoceros" that doesn't sound ridiculous?

    Well, there's "rhinos". There's also uninflected "rhinoceros", but maybe that would sound ridiculous in certain contexts. "A herd of rhinoceros", for example, sounds reasonable to me, "three rhinoceros" not so much.

  50. James Iry said,

    November 22, 2015 @ 12:07 am

    rhinocereese, of course

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