What is the process for translating modern words into Latin? For example, Latin Wikipedia has entries for tablet computatrum tabulare and smartphone sophophonum. Is there any particular process for coming up with these names, or do users of contemporary Latin come up with individual translations and use it until one of these "catches on"?

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    I am not sure how they make them up, though some are logical, but you can find all the new words in the lexicon recentis latinitatis, which is a dictionary made by the vatican for modern words like sport, technology and new ideas.
    – Yadeses
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 20:19
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    @Yadeses So you're saying there's is a governing body for Contemporary Latin, which is (connected to) the Vatican. I think you should post this as an answer.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 20:26
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    The rule for the Latin Wikipedia is noli fingere: Don't make stuff up. And so, if something is published in dead tree edition or from a website (not Wikipedia) apparently written by Latinists, it is taken as canonical Latin. This is where sophophonum and other neologisms came from. Alternatively, a word that can come from generative prefixes and suffixes can be formed, and it would be acceptable. For example, stultus sophophonifer (a cellphone-carrying idiot) might be accepted.
    – Robert B
    Commented Jun 2, 2016 at 3:27

1 Answer 1


Basically, your second option is correct. There is the Vatican's Lexicon Recentis Latínitátis, referred to in the comment, but its approach to Latin is very idiosyncratic; debates over neologisms often get incredibly acrimonious, if you can believe it, but there are (VERY roughly) two schools: the "Ciceronian," in which making up words for concepts that didn't exist in ancient Rome is to be avoided whenever possible, and the "Erasmian," in which new concepts call for new ideas. ("Ciceronian" and "Erasmian" are my names for them, though they're not entirely accurate; Cicero made up words all the time, and Erasmus has a whole screed about how people who think you can't use any Latin Cicero didn't use are idiots.)

The Vatican is of the more "Ciceronian" school, which gives you, unfortunately, things like "immódica medicamenti stupefactívi iniéctió" as the official term for "overdose." Other than the Vatican, actually, I'm not aware of anybody who takes this approach to neologisms.

(Actually, now that I think of it, even the Vatican doesn't take this approach, or not always: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid was translated into Latin (Commentarií dé Ineptó Pueró) by one of the Pope's Latinists (Monsignor Daniel Gallagher), and it definitely doesn't use the Lexicon Recentis Latínitátis.

So basically, somebody comes up with a word and it catches on. "World-wide web," for example, is widely known as "Téla Totíus Terrae," and I have to imagine that somebody came up with that and couldn't stop giggling, and it's so great (ttt) that there's no reason to come up with anything else. "Computátrum" is the generally used word for "computer" (though the Vatican prefers "ínstrúmentum computátrálium").

For what it's worth, David Morgan of Furman University put together a lexicon of Neo-Latin words that already exist that can be used for modern concepts. Careful, though, because the Lexicon Morganianum is in two parts, the adumbratio and the silva, and people tend not to realize this. Patrick Owens, the lexicon's current curator, explains the difference:

The Morgan-Owens Latin Lexicon is found under the link entitled "adumbratio" (see link below). The link entitled "silva" is a mere collection of other modern Latin dictionaries. If a term appears in the "silva" but not in the "adumbratio" it is because it has been intentionally rejected on philological grounds.

TL;DR: People come up with stuff and whatever sticks, sticks.

  • I hope your terminology of "Ciceronian" vs. "Erasmian" sticks.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 23:38
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    I'm not happy with it, as both Cicero and Erasmus were firmly on the side of neologisms; it's just that the folks who are anti-neologistic take Cicero as their model. Probably "Vatican" and "Erasmian" would be more appropriate. But I see your point; my original coining does have a certain something. Commented Mar 8, 2016 at 3:15
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    What was the name of the guy that Erasmus was making fun of in The Ciceronian? Maybe you could name the Vatican-like approach after him.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 30, 2016 at 22:52
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    @BenKovitz D'oh! I forgot that was the name of the screed—no wonder I called it Ciceronian! That's it—I'm renaming them Nosoponian and Erasmian. Commented May 30, 2016 at 23:10
  • @JoelDerfner, they were both firmly in favor of neologisms because Latin was a living breathing language in their times. The main reason, I imagine, people are nowadays so rigid about neologisms and pronunciation is probably because of how irrelevant Latin has become for day-to-day mainstream use. It is one of the reasons I am in general against the Reconstructed Pronunciation (I personally prefer Ecclesiastical, but any national pronunciation is valid) because it is so stale and smells of antiquarianism, not proper of a living practical language. I love your posts, they are very helpful!
    – Victor BC
    Commented Mar 16, 2020 at 2:22

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