Julius Ceasar and the English language. By English with Stephen

Word Stories: Julius Ceasar

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about words and phrases that are inspired by Julius Ceasar.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. My name’s Stephen Greene and today we are going to look at one of the most famous men in world history: Julius Ceasar.

Most people know of Julius Ceasar as the Roman general who became the most powerful man in Rome. He conquered Gaul, fell in love with Cleopatra, and won countless wars and battles.

But Julius Ceasar also had a huge impact on languages all over the world, including English. As we go through today’s episode, think about words and phrases that you have in your language that were inspired by this man who died over 2, 000 years ago.

All of that, after this short break.

Before we talk about Julius Ceasar, I’d like to recommend another podcast for English students. It is called Zdenek’s English podcast. Zdenek, I hope I am saying his name right, interviews different people about learning English. Sometimes they are teachers, and sometimes they are English learners, and at other times they are both teachers and students. It is a great podcast that will give you valuable tips for learning English from people who really know what they are talking about.

You can find Zdenek’s podcast on your favourite podcast app, or by searching for Zdenek’s English podcast. I’ll also post a link on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com

So, Julius Ceasar then. What has he ever done for the English language? Quite a lot, actually.

The man’s name was actually Gaius Julian Ceasar, but nobody seems to remember the first part, so I am going to concentrate on the last two names. Nobody is quite sure what “Julius” originally meant, but one theory is that it referred to the first hairs that a man grows on his face, the idea being that it is related to being young and strong.

Likewise, the origin of the word “Ceasar” is also unknown, but my favourite theory is that it came from the Latin word for “elephant”. The idea here is that an ancestor of Ceasar’s killed one of Hannibal’s elephants when he was trying to invade Italy.

So Julius Ceasar might have meant something like “a young elephant killer”.

Anyway, whatever the original meaning Juliusdcreated many similar names. Boys’ names such as Julius and Julian, or girls’ names such as Julie, Julia, Juliana, Gillian, and Jill are all inspired by the original Julius Ceasar and are still popular today.

As well as taking over most of Europe, Julius Ceasar was also responsible for changing the calendar. Previously, Rome had operated on a Lunar Calendar, which uses the moon. However, this created a lot of problems because it was not very precise. He decided to switch to a solar calendar, which uses the sun and is a lot more precise. The only problem was that a solar calendar needed a couple of extra months, so why not name one after himself? This is where we get the month of “July” from.

The second part of his name, “Ceasar” gives us “Caesarean section”, or more commonly today “C-Section”. A Caesarean section is a way of delivering a baby by cutting through the mother’s abdomen. The story is that this is the way that Julius Ceasar was born, but this is probably not true because in Roman times it would have meant killing the mother and we know that Ceasar’s mother lived for a long time after he was born.

As the leader of a formidable army and state, Ceasar has been a hero t many strong, some would say tyrannical, leaders throughout history. Indeed, the word for the Russian leader “Tzar”, an Arabic leader “Shah” and a German king “Kaiser” all originated in the word “Ceasar”.

During Julius Ceasar’s time as a ruler in Rome, there was a rumour that Ceasar’s wife was having an affair with another man. In ancient Rome, it was common for people to have affairs all over the place, and there was no evidence that she actually was having an affair, but this didn’t stop Ceasar from divorcing his wife. He claimed the reason for this was that Ceasar’s wife must not only be innocent, but everyone must think she is innocent. We can still use the phrase “Ceasar’s wife” in this context today.

In the Bible, there is a parable where Jesus is asked whether people should pay taxes to the Romans. This was a very difficult question to answer because the Jewish people were dominated by Rome and many wanted to fight for independence. However, if Jesus said that they should not pay taxes, then the Roman forces would have had a reason to arrest him. So to answer the question, Jesus is supposed to have said “give to Ceasar what belongs to Ceasar”. This was very clever because the coins at that time had Ceasar’s head, so when you paid your taxes you were giving back to Ceasar something that really belonged to him.

Incidentally, the Emperor of Rome at the time of Jesus was not Julius Ceasar. However, all Emperors took the name “Cesar” for a few hundred years after his death.

But it is not just the names of Julius Ceasar that live on with us, but also his words and actions.

At one point, Julius Ceasar invaded the kingdom of Pontus, near modern-day Macedonia. The invasion was very easy and the victory was swift. Ceasar wrote in a letter to a friend “vini vidi vici” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”. This is a Latin phrase that many people still know today, even if they have never studied Latin.

There is a river in northern Italy called the Rubicon. It is a small river, but it marked the border of Rome’s homeland during Ceasar’s life. The law was that anybody who brought an army across this river was declaring war on Rome. After defeating the Gauls in modern-day France, Ceasar felt he had no choice but to “cross the Rubicon” and start a civil war against the Roman senate. We still use the phrase “cross the Rubicon” when we are crossing a line that sets us on a path that cannot be changed.

When Cesar crossed the Rubicon, he is supposed to have said “the die is cast”. In modern English, we use the word “dice” for the six-sided cube we use to play games of chance. This is actually wrong, because “dice” is the plural. Originally, “die” was the singular. So Ceasar was saying he had thrown the dice and there was nothing else that could be done. It was all up to fate.

Eventually, Ceasar’s fate was to be killed by the senators who were worried he wanted to be king. Rome was still, officially at least, a republic. The senators were worried that Ceasar wanted to change this and become a tyrant. One of the people involved in killing Ceasar was Brutus. Brutus was very close to Ceasar personally, and when Ceasar realised that his young friend was involved in his assassination he is supposed to have said “et tu, Brutus?”, or “even you, Brutus?” At least, this is what Shakespeare would have us believe, but there is probably a lot of artistic licence at play here.

Another Latin phrase associated with Ceasar and that is still used today is “Sic semper tyrannis”. Once they had killed Ceasar, Brutus is supposed to say this and it means something like “thus always to tyrants”, suggesting this is what would happen to any and every tyrant. It is relevant today because, hundreds of years later, John Wilkes Booth said this as he shot and killed President Lincoln. The phrase can also be found in mottos for the State of Virginia, various American military groups and even in popular culture, for example in the Marvel comic The Punisher, the TV shows NCIS, Rick and Morty, Seinfeld, and even in movies such as The Big Lebowski.

Ceasar was killed on the 15th of March, or as the Romans called it, the Ides of March. Legend has it that a month earlier Ceasar was visited by a soothsayer, a type of fortune teller, who warned Ceasar his life would be in danger for the next 30 days. When Shakespeare, yes him again, came to tell the story of Ceasar, he used the famous line “beware the Ides of March”. This phrase is not commonly used today unless something bad happens around the middle of March when newspapers love to use the old quote.

And finally, Ceasar salad. Have you tried a Ceasar salad? It is very popular and the basic ingredients are chicken, lettuce and some sort of bread with a dressing on top. Unfortunately, though, this salad was not invented by, or for, Julius Ceasar. It was instead invented by an Italian chef called Ceasar Cardini at his restaurant in California in 1919.

Don’t forget to tell me about the words and phrases you have in your language that are inspired by Ceasar. And, of course, go check out Zdenek’s English podcast.

Thanks for listening, and I hope to speak to you again next week.

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