Our noun deficit comes from the Latin third-person singular indicative verb dēficit, meaning “it is lacking.” This word was adopted first into French as a noun and then into English, to express the meaning “an inadequacy, insufficiency, or impairment.”
There are many such English nouns that had their origins as Latin verbs. Some belong only to the technical jargon of a particular profession (lawyers may know what a mandamus is, but surely few laypeople do), but others have become a part of everyday English, though often retaining a touch of highfalutin formality. The Latin ignōrāmus, for instance, which literally means “we do not know,” came to English by way of the legal profession, originally denoting a form of grand jury decision, but now means “one who knows very little.” Nor is it only present-tense indicative verbs that have been changed into English nouns: placēbō is a future-tense indicative, meaning “I shall please”; recipe is an imperative form meaning “take” (as in “Take two cups of flour, a cup of sugar, and a stick of butter…”); and fiat and caveat are subjunctive forms meaning “let it be done” and “let him or her beware,” respectively.
Why, you may be wondering, are we giving many of these literal translations as three- or four-word sentences when in the Latin they are single words? The answer has to do with the difference between Latin grammar and English grammar. Latin has more or less the same parts of speech that English has: though it has no definite or indefinite articles, it does have nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and so on. But Latin is a much more highly inflected language than English is—that is, it communicates much more of the meaning in a sentence by means of grammatical endings and stem changes.
In Latin verbs, for instance, the endings signal more clearly than in English whether the subject is the speaker, the one spoken to, or someone or something else altogether, as well as whether the subject is singular or plural. Most English present-tense indicative active verbs have only two forms: a form ending in –s or –es for the third-person singular (writes, walks, goes, etc.) and a plain form for all other combinations of person and number (write, walk, go, etc.). Because the Latin verb communicates so much information by itself, including the person and number of its subject, it is customary to provide the pronoun to indicate person and number when translating it into English.
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