An example: carpere could mean many different things or related things:

  1. to seize, to pick, to pluck, to gather, to browse, to tear off
  2. to graze, to crop
  3. (wool) to tease, to pull out, to card
  4. to separate, to divide, to tear down
  5. to carve
  6. to despoil, to fleece
  7. to pursue, to hurry
  8. to consume, to erode

Taken from the Online Latin Dictionary.

When someone takes something like

rosas carpo

and translates it as ‘I gather flowers’: How do they know how to choose this translation? Are there any tricks to pick the correct term that people refer to? I can only assume it means ‘I gather the flowers’ since it just makes more sense.

  • 4
    Meaning is always contextual, so you have to look at the whole sentence and quite often even at the other adjacent sentences. Good dictionaries, unless they are historical, usually list meanings by frequency; that is why it's important to read a dictionary guide or preface first, to confirm this.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 18:55
  • 3
    I did a thorough edit of your question; I suggest you take a look at it and ask if you have any questions as to why I made the edits I did. I would also suggest you rewrite the question ending in ‘to pick the correct term that people refer to’ as this is poorly written. Doing this helps everyone answer your question as best they can, giving you a better answer and helping us all to learn more. Welcome to Latin SE!
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 12:37

4 Answers 4


Joonas and Cairnarvon are right, but I want to add an additional detail. Using an online dictionary that is just a "word list" is no replacement for a proper dictionary. Dictionaries don't just give various translation possibilities, but explain usage as well. On the other hand, these sorts of sites aren't meant to replace a proper dictionary, but rather just quickly and easily define a word in its multiplicity of meanings so the translator can quickly choose an acceptable word.

Proper dictionaries will have explanations and examples given. Compare Lewis and Short. One thing you'll notice is that it tells you certain contexts. With flowers it gives "pick", "pluck", and "gather". Which do you choose? Whichever fits the context best, of course. There is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence for all words, so you'll have to artfully figure out how best to render and represent the image and action of the Latin into English.

This is especially true because metaphors extend. In English, the plucking and gathering are different actions, but to do one you need to do the other. If you said, "The girl is out in the field picking flowers," there is an expectation that she will return with a bundle. Likewise, if she wanders into the field to gather flowers, she has to pick them to get them.

A proper dictionary will give you further hints. You'll notice that it's compared to others verbs ("rapio, ἁρπάζω, καρπος; Engl. grab, grip, grasp") which allow you to compare. You can even consult an etymological dictionary to see how the sense develops over time.

  • 4
    “Using an online dictionary is no replacement for a real "word list" is no replacement for a proper dictionary” — This seems like an odd statement, especially because you then go on to link to a very much proper, but online, dictionary. Using a word list is certainly no replacement for a proper dictionary, but online dictionaries can be, and are often, perfectly proper, and often superior to printed ones. Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 9:26
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    @JanusBahsJacquet It got mangled there a bit in the initial composition, but I just edited to make it clearer. Thanks for pointing that out.
    – cmw
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 11:34
  • ‘This is especially true because metaphors extend.’ Extend what? In any case, this had me thinking of my previous question on perveniō: latin.stackexchange.com/questions/16283/…
    – Canned Man
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 14:28

The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives a number of "translations" of the English verb seize: confiscate, capture, arrest, clutch, grasp, apprehend, afflict, possess, understand, bind, fasten, take, cohere, fail to operate. How to choose the right one?

This question might not make a lot of sense, and that is my point. Depending on context, different English verbs can be synonymous (either fully or nearly) to seize. What the list does is not giving a definitive list of possible replacements but describing what it means to seize.

The exact same thing is going on in that dictionary entry for carpere. It tries to describe what the word means by giving possible translations and use contexts. When you translate the verb in a context, you might or might not pick something from that list. Your translation should be aligned with the idea conveyed by the entry, not necessarily match any specific part of it.

In general, I find it very helpful to think of translation from Latin to English like this: You read and understand the Latin text and then you re-express that meaning in English. It is crucial not to go directly from Latin to English but via meaning. Taking two steps instead of one might sound clumsy, but it really saves you from many mistakes.

Languages rarely have nice one-to-one correspondence between their vocabularies — a symptom of which is having some long entries in dictionaries — or syntax. A lengthy entry like the one you quote is useful for trying to understand carpere in any context it might appear in. Then you can take that understanding and produce a translation. For example, you might end up translating carpo as "I get" even though that English verb was not listed, and that is perfectly fine.


Note that all of those meanings are clustered around a semantic core involving plucking of some sort. That's its fundamental and oldest reconstructable meaning, and the other meanings are either metaphorical extensions or just more idiomatic-in-English translations for shades of meaning that are in no sense distinct in the Latin.
It will usually be the case that words that have a large number of dictionary translations can be reduced to a single semantic core (or maybe a few, in case of significant drift or homophones), and figuring out that basic meaning of a word is useful in that it will help you

  1. remember vocabulary without having to memorise a 1000+-word wall of text for each word, and
  2. provide a provisional translation, after which context will help you determine the most appropriate final rendering.

Dictionaries will usually put the most common meaning of a word first, and that will often (but not always) be the meaning closest to "the" fundamental one. It's ultimately context and experience that will have to get you the rest of the way there.


Not covered in the other answers: it also depends on the purpose of your translation, and its intended audience. Do you want your translated text to be a pleasure to read, or do you want it to assist those who are trying to comprehend the original? Do you want the translated text to convey the author's message to people who aren't familiar with the cultural references and nuances in the original? Or do you just want to convince an examiner that you understand what you have read?

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