Contrary to popular belief, Carpe Diem does not mean “Seize the day”. Carpe Diem actually means “pick the day”, not “seize it”. As subtle as it may seem, the difference is important.

Where does Carpe Diem come from?

This Latin saying first appears in the Odes (lyrical poems) composed by the poet Horace during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. The poem in which it appears, Ode 11, dates from 23 BC, an important year in Roman history. Indeed, it was the year in which the first emperor of Rome, Augustus, took the title of princeps (or "first citizen"), the title of which gave us the word "prince", thus marking the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

addressed to a Greek woman called Leuconoe. It may be a slave (the Greeks of ancient Rome often were) to whom our poet gives advice, but it is more likely a courtesan whom he tries to seduce.

The devil with the silver tongue.

Leuconoe likes to guess the future thanks to horoscopes - or "Babylonian calculations" as Horace calls them (those pesky Babylonians, who come here and guess our future, etc.), but Horace dissuades him. “Only Jupiter can know our destiny,” he declares; "life is short, so it is better to live in the present, squeeze the wine and carpe diem, relying as little as possible on tomorrow."

To help you understand the meaning of Carpe Diem, here is Horace's poem in its entirety:

"Do not ask Leuconoe - the gods do not want this to be known - what end they gave me or gave you, and do not amuse yourself with making Babylonian calculations. Better to accept what comes, whether Jupiter grants us other winters or whether this is the last, which now tires the Tyrrhenian sea on the pumice rocks which face it Be wise, filter the wine and, since time is limited, renounce prolonged hopes. Envious time flies away as we speak; pick the day by trusting as little as possible to the future.

What stands out from this last part is the expression invida aetas fugerit, translated here as "envious time flies away as we speak."

You've probably heard the expression "time flies"; it also comes from Latin, more precisely from the expression tempus fugit of the Latin author Virgil. The more perceptive among you will have noticed that Virgil uses a different name for time (tempus) from that of Horace (aetas), because the Latin word aetas translates more with the meaning of life or generation.

Carpe Diem takes on a different meaning in the context of this fleeting and envious age. There is a feeling of urgency, of immediacy, of holding on to the present moment knowing that nothing is permanent.

The ancient meaning of Carpe Diem

Derived from the Latin verb carpere, carpe means to gather, harvest or harvest. Carpe diem therefore means “pick the day”. Horace, like other Roman poets, uses agricultural language and terminology extensively. The Romans even had their own broad (and often painfully boring) genre of pastoral poetry, which is an excellent remedy for insomnia but is not the most stimulating literature.


Many words in our modern vocabulary come from Latin agricultural language. The word culture, for example, comes from the Latin verb colere (meaning to cultivate) or the noun cultura, meaning culture.

Horace uses the metaphor of wine and fruit to suggest living day by day, because life is short and plans for the future may not come true. In Latin, the expression is rich in images. It conveys the idea that you should pick the fruits when they are ripe and not wait until the best is over. Thus, the ancient meaning of Carpe Diem was to live in the fullness of the present moment, to harvest today and not rely on tomorrow.

Erotic connotations of Carpe Diem


We mentioned above that the woman Horace was speaking to may have been a courtesan or prostitute. Why do we think this, and what are the implications for the meaning of Carpe Diem?

It is worth asking what Horace is asking of Leuconoe. What does he advise him? His immediate reference to "you and me", his oblique reference to fruit (symbol of temptation) and wine (metaphor of loss of inhibition), and his call to live in the present suggest that our poet is trying to bring this young Greek girl in her bed. This is where things get fruity.

**Explicit content warning**

Peeling a fruit had sexual connotations in Latin. The Romans used the same word for fruit peeling (glubere) as they did for masturbation and foreskin peeling. The poet Catullus, a close contemporary of Horace, left us a rather striking example - and it is worth noting that Catullus' poetry contains some of the most explicit verses in Latin literature, including my favorite pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, which translates to "I will sodomize you and"...

It's better to find the rest yourself.

In his writings about Lesbia, Catullus' lover and the most famous prostitute in Latin literature, Catullus says that she "peeled the descendants of Romulus and Remus" (glubit magnanimi Remi nepotes) all while working the street and preparing to perform oral sex on her clients.


In Latin, plucking is less sexually charged than peeling. The picking is gentle, sensual and depends on the moment. You can only pick a fruit when it is ready: a ripe fruit is not very rewarding, but a rotten fruit is even worse. The seizure, on the other hand, is forceful, violent and does not depend on the right moment.

We grab something when we want it, not necessarily when it's ready.

If Horace were still alive today, and he had more than lyric poetry and flute music to serenade his beloved, he probably would have wooed her with something like that. (But in a toga instead of black tie).

The modern meaning of Carpe Diem

It was a dead poet who introduced Carpe Diem to Augustus' generation, but it was the Society of Dead Poets (1989) that defined the meaning of Carpe Diem for ours.

The aphorism appears in the speech of John Keating (Robin Williams), a rebellious teacher who respects no one's rules, not even his own. Speaking to his class and having them look at photos of former students, he urges them to make the most of every moment: "Carpe Diem, seize the day, boys, make your lives extraordinary.


The modern meaning of Carpe Diem is to do something big and seize the moment - take the vacation you've always dreamed of, land your dream job, or tell someone what you 'we feel and finally ask him out!

The TikTok generation would understand it as #YOLO (you only live once). Although lacking the agricultural language that characterizes most other exhortations to seize the moment, its conciseness must at least be applauded.

These are the ideas that best convey the modern meaning of Carpe Diem, and Today we have many sayings in English that convey a similar message: "strike while the iron is hot", "grab the bull by the horns", "time and tide wait for no man", or even "you only live once", which is more emphatic.

Today, Carpe diem could be the motto for one of the life-changing possibilities mentioned above or used to justify not taking any responsibilities......just one last glass of tequila on a school night!

Carpe Diem in popular culture

What do Metallica, Dame Judie Dench and an Australian philosopher have in common? (No, this is not the start of a joke). The answer is that they all gave meaning to the expression Carpe Diem by transposing it into current events.

  • In 1997, Metallica released the song Carpe Diem Baby on the album Reload. With lyrics such as "So wash your face away with dirt; It don't feel good until it hurts; So take this world and shake it; Come squeeze and suck the day", we suspect Horace would not have approved , but that Catullus would have done it (some of his poems were disgusting).
  • In 2016, Dame Judie Dench had Carpe Diem tattooed in block letters on her wrist. (Thank you, Dame Judie, for not getting a #YOLO tattoo).
  • In 2017, Australian philosopher Roman Kznaric published Carpe Diem Regained. This is an interesting work that argues that the modern meaning of Carpe Diem, "Just Do It", has been hijacked by four groups. These are consumer culture (Just Buy It), digital entertainment and social media (Just Watch It), our modern obsession with planning and time management (Just Plan It), and the mindfulness (Just Breathe).

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