Latin Lover


When I went to high school, nobody had ever heard of STEM, or STEAM, or, for that matter, whole language, mainstreaming, immersion, new math, cooperative learning or digital literacy. There was simply an assumption that students needed to be exposed to as many subject areas and disciplines as possible.

One of those areas was classical languages, which in our case meant Latin, because we didn’t have a Greek department. I had grown up hearing church services sung or spoken in Latin, but had never bothered to figure out what any of it meant, so I pretty much started out high-school Latin from scratch.

It turned out that I loved it. As you probably know, English is a Germanic language, but it is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Part of the pleasure I took in Latin was a sort of code-breaking exercise, tracing Latin roots forward to contemporary American English.

Another part was that we learned Roman history alongside the language, and I always like reading about history. In addition, a lot of the texts that we translated were historical in nature, such as excerpts from Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.

I even liked the fact that Latin was a dead language. You didn’t have to worry about your accent, or mispronouncing Latin words, because there is no “correct” pronunciation. That saves a good deal of embarrassment when you’re standing at the lectern.

My favorite part of high-school Latin, though, was the teacher, Mrs. Nash. She was old-school in the finest sense of the term, with a dry sense of humor that somehow seemed appropriate to the subject matter. Teachers like her are the true gems of any school system.

Does exposure to classical languages improve a person’s education? I don’t know the answer to that question. There are people who argue that living languages make more sense to learn, and I can’t fault their logic. On the other hand, I took French and German in high school, and with the exception of one trip to Paris, neither has been especially useful.

If I were in high school today, there is not much doubt about the non-English language that I would be studying. Spanish wasn’t even available when I was in school, but now it is so prevalent that it isn’t even a “foreign” language. It’s more like an alternative domestic language.

There are around 40 million Americans for whom Spanish is their first language, and the one they generally speak at home. About half of those people are proficient in English as well. Among primarily English speakers, there are approximately 10 million who can also speak Spanish. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.

From a practical standpoint, Spanish would make more sense for me to know, and from a business perspective I probably could have made good use of other modern languages, such as Mandarin. Nevertheless, I am glad I studied Latin, and there have even been times when it popped up in business. I’ll give you one example.

Before I owned my own business I ran a publishing company and later a printing plant that were owned by larger companies. During that period I reported to three different executives, each of whom taught me a great deal.

While I was running the printing plant, one of them told me something which became a core tenet of my business philosophy. He told me that “when a customer asks for something, the answer is never ‘no.’”

In printing, customers were always asking for big favors, like whether we could cut their usual three-day turnaround to one day. My boss told me that the answer to that request is a question to the customer. “If I do that for you, what do I get?”

One thing we could get, of course, was more money, but that was far from the only thing, and not really the one that my boss had in mind. “Maybe they could pay for the job in advance,” he said, “or on delivery. Maybe they could give us more of their business, or lock into a long-term contract.”

What’s all this got to do with Latin? Well, there’s a Latin term for this sort of process. It’s called a “quid pro quo.”

In case you’ve been living under a rock lately, the translation is pretty straightforward. It simply means, “this for that,” but it represents a concept which underlies our whole system of commerce. Each and every sale you make is a contract in which you agree to provide something of value in exchange for something else of value.

Throughout the whole kerfuffle, I winced whenever anybody used the Latin phrase, which was nearly always hurled about as if it were a crime in itself. Just to be clear, it’s not.

To me, it’s much like the word “conversation.” Most conversations are within the law, and civilization would have a hard time progressing without them, but there are exceptions. It might be illegal to discuss classified documents with a foreign agent, for example, or to plan a bank robbery.

Such is the case with quid pro quo. It’s normally legal, but if you buy OxyContin out on the street, or solicit a prostitute, you may find that it is sometimes frowned upon.

Speaking for myself, I also think that a quid pro quo approach to personal issues is not a good idea. The popular term for that practice is “transactional,” meaning that everything is some kind of a deal, but a personal life is not a business. If you expect compensation for whatever you give to friends and family, you will be disappointed.

For your business, though, quid pro quo is not only an acceptable mindset, but an essential one. If anything, I think most of us think far too little about what the exact quids and quos are in our business, and what we want them to be.

On one level, you could just say that you provide products in exchange for money, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to it than that. Your knowledge and experience are certainly part of the transaction, along with guarantees of some sort. I suspect that you also offer encouragement, affirmation, and perhaps even fun. Some of you go so far as to provide a gathering place and a sense of belonging.

And you want more from your customers than their money, don’t you? You want their loyalty, you want their help with your marketing program, and, increasingly, you want their information. The retailers who get their quids and quos figured out are the ones who are likely to survive in the 21st century.

As far as that other quid pro quo argument is concerned, the one going on in Washington, I will leave you with another Latin phrase. “Res ipsa loquitur.” The thing speaks for itself.

Somewhere, Mrs. Nash is smiling.

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