Probably the most commonly used and well known of Latin phrases is Carpe Diem, which everybody translates as, "Seize the Day!". The 1989 movie "The Dead Poet's Society" has the charismatic teacher tell his students, "But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? --- Carpe --- hear it? --- Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary." Rightfully so, this phrase has been a positive, motivating factor in the lives of millions of people. But in truth, this phrase has been misrepresented! "Carpe", in fact, does not come from the Latin word "Capio", which means to seize. It comes from the Latin word "carpo", which means to pluck. Carpe is the second person singular command form of carpo, meaning essentially, "You, pluck!" Diem is the English Objective case for day, meaning that it is the object of the verb carpo. So in effect, the saying really means, "You [there], pluck the day!". How can someone "pluck" the day? And furthermore, where does pluck come from?
Horace is a famous Latin poet (Horatius) who lived at the end of the Republic and the beginnings of the formation of the Empire (65 bce-8 bce roughly). His most famous poem is Ode I-XI. Translated into english, it is:
"Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings Leuconoë. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!"
A major element of this poem centers around the Classical belief in Fate (which truly does not contradict volition). Fate was considered to be everything outside of an individual's control. For example, regardless of one's hopes or wishes, it will rain. That it rains or does not rain is considered fate. The first part of the poem, up to the sentence beginning with, "Be wise...", states in essential modern terms, "Whatever happens by fate, happens. Therefore, it's better to endure these things and overcome them, as opposed to constantly standing in fear of them."
It is in the seond part of the poem that the famous carpe diem enters the stage. From the line, "Be wise, strain the wine;" we can finally understand (due to the constant weather references) that Horace is singing about farmers and agriculture. Continuing with his agricultural motif, he says, "Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!" Horace is thus saying that, though the rain clouds may be coming in, though the summers heat may show no sign of wavering, or though tomorrow might bring record low temperatures, we have before us right now a task (a field). Instead of fretting over fate, we must produce as much as we can today. To pluck the day really means to harvest as much from the day as we can. Or put more simply, to work as hard as we can to produce as much as we can...today, right now, with no delay.
This focus on production is the key distinction between the more unspecified, often hedonistic "Seize the day!" and the specified, hard working "Pluck the day!" It might sound better, however, to say "Produce today!" Nevertheless, this once inspiring phrase should have a more dear meaning to all Americans. That famous Yankee Ingenuity is in fact the same thing as "Carpe Diem!". And just like the Romans, it is now the Americans who dominate the world; not because of Imperial might, but because of Productive Ability. To put it more simply, Americans are just damn good pluckers.