Sunday, June 22, 2008

The State Motto Grotto

Except in New Hampshire, where the license plates proudly assert the state motto, “Live free or die,” you don’t usually see state mottos. Far more often you’ll see state nicknames, like Missouri being the “Show Me State.“ You may recognize that nickname, but how about Missouri’s state motto, Salus populi suprema lex esto?

Other than “Live free or die,” state mottos are apparently kept in a cave somewhere, a cave we’ll call the State Motto Grotto. Prepare to behold the many beasts of language that dwell there.

A word of caution first. Like Missouri's, many state mottos are in Latin. For example, who can remember Alabama’s “We Dare Defend Our Rights” without the crutch of the official Latin version, Audemus jura nostra defendere? Obligingly, I will provide non-English mottos in their original language and then an English version.

As a starting point, you might be surprised how few state mottos are about geographic identity.

  • Minnesota: L’├ętoile du Nord (French, “The star of the North”)
  • Indiana: “The crossroads of America”
  • And with an extra bit of marketing panache, Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (Latin, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”)

Beyond those, state mottos are more about concepts than places. For an extreme example, North Carolina: Esse quam videri (Latin, “To be rather than to seem”). Don’t look for it on a license plate soon.

Or how about Maryland’s Fatti maschi, parole femmine? The direct Italian translation is, “Manly deeds, womanly words.” But before your imagination runs wild, think of it as something like Theodore Roosevelt’s, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio, and South Dakota: God gets a mention in each of their mottos. Apparently, they’re not taking too literally the “state” in “separation of church and state.” (Florida, you clever one, your choice of “In God We Trust” kicks any complaints upstairs to the federal government, which features that phrase on its money.)

In the secular-inspirational genre, we have New York’s Excelsior (Latin, “Ever upward”), Wisconsin’s “Forward,” Alaska’s “North to the Future,” California’s Eureka (Greek, “I have found it”), and New Mexico’s ominous Crescit eundo (Latin, “It grows as it goes”).

Less manifest-destinational is South Carolina’s Dum spiro spero (Latin, “While I breathe, I hope”), which Rhode Island reduces to “Hope.” And Connecticut brings us the unusual Qui transtulit sustinet (Latin, “He who transplanted sustains”), which is so 1639.

More contemporary sounding, albeit from 1873, is West Virginia’s Montani semper liberi (Latin, “Mountaineers are always free”). Or consider the following mottos, pulsating with the poetic minimalism of the Standard Industrial Classification.

  • Utah: “Industry”
  • Tennessee: “Agriculture and commerce”
  • Montana: Oro y plata (Spanish, “Gold and sliver”)

Finally, we have the classic American theme of liberty and freedom, rendered variously as:

  • Delaware: “Liberty and independence”
  • Iowa: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain”
  • Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (Latin, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”)
  • New Jersey: “Liberty and prosperity”
  • Pennsylvania: “Virtue, liberty, and independence”
  • And, of course, New Hampshire’s commandment-style “Live free or die.”

Now, having toured the State Motto Grotto, perhaps you’ll agree that “Live free or die” deserves to bask in the reflected headlights of motorists everywhere, or at least New Hampshire. By comparison, most other state mottos lack the pith and punch, which explains why they linger in silentium (Latin, “in obscurity”).

[Should you wish to audit every state motto, see Wikipedia’s List of U.S. State Mottos. The license plate image is from Wikimedia Commons.]

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