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What Does “Mea Culpa” Mean? Definition and Examples

My middle school Latin teacher couldn’t be more proud of this post I’m about to write. She challenged her students to bring in examples of Latin phrases or words we heard in everyday conversations or ads or newspaper articles. We would write them down on a flashcard, and stick it right on a wall. Who says Latin is dead?

Mea culpa was one of the most common phrases to make it on the wall.

The Latin phrase mea culpa means “through my fault” and is used to admit guilt or wrongdoing.

The phrase has a long history, appearing in personal prayers in the Catholic tradition as early as the 8th century. Now, we see it used more widely, such as when public officials issue a formal apology.

What does mea culpa mean?

The most literal definition of mea culpa is “through my fault.” You can see culpa, the Latin word for fault, pop up in a few other related words that you probably know, like culpable and culprit.

Today, we don’t employ the phrase so literally anymore. It’s primarily used as a noun to refer to the apology itself. For instance, a politician might release a mea culpa in the aftermath of a scandal. Occasionally, it’s used as an interjection to take responsibility for a mistake, similar to exclaiming: “My bad!”

The other place it’s used is in the Catholic Church, during the Penitential Act of the Mass service. It’s recited three times in a row within the Confiteor prayer: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Worshippers are describing the ways in which they have sinned: through my fault, through my fault, through my greatest fault.

How to use mea culpa in a sentence

Here’s an example of how to use mea culpa as a noun:

“The newspaper issued a mea culpa after the many inaccuracies in their latest story came to light.”

And here’s an example of how to use mea culpa as an interjection:

Mea culpa! l totally forgot to pick up the groceries on the way home.”

Because it’s a foreign phrase, the correct practice is to always write mea culpa in italics. Yet, over the last years and particularly on the web, you can see a growing use of the non-italicized version of the phrase.

Examples of mea culpa

Here are some examples of how mea culpa has been used in news stories and popular culture:

  • Describing a public official’s apology: “Four years after piling on a few dozen men who were already down — on one knee — the NFL commissioner posed in front of a camera in his living room, swapped his suit and tie for a sackcloth and ashes and delivered a minute-long video mea culpa.” -- ABC News, June 9, 2020

  • Describing a plotline of TV show The Politician: “Alice tells Skye she should stand beside Payton as he issues a mea culpa; Skye reluctantly accepts, citing her own pragmatism, but tells Payton that he crossed a line and that he has to go out with her to register young voters of color.” -- Vulture, June 20, 2020

  • An award-winning 2012 documentary exposing acts of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church deliberately played on the phrase within its title. It’s called Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

Maybe Latin isn’t exactly a spoken language anymore, but that doesn’t mean its words have disappeared from our vocabulary (this is the part where my Latin teacher smiles). Now that you know what mea culpa means, my bet is you’ll start hearing it everywhere. All you need is some flashcards and a blank wall and soon you’ll have a whole collection of examples...

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Joanna Kramer, UX Writer at Wix

Raised in D.C. and now living in Jerusalem, Joanna can usually be found listening to a podcast, at a Gaga dance class, or studying Talmud.

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