Oct. 24 (Tuesday)

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E pluribus unum is one of the most famous and beloved mottoes. It’s a Latin phrase that translates “one out of many.” If it sounds familiar, it should; it’s the United States’ original national motto.

But what does “one out of many” mean? And why would people make it more confusing by saying it in a language that few Americans understand?

What Is a Motto?

Wikipedia defines motto as “a phrase, or a short list of words meant formally to describe the general motivation or intention of an entity, social group, or organization.” Merriam-Webster Online defines motto as “a sentence, phrase, or word inscribed on something as appropriate to or indicative of its character or use” or “a short expression of a guiding principle.”

A better definition might be a short expression of an idea, ideal or the character of the people represented by the motto. For nations and people don’t always live by their mottoes. Indeed, many mottoes can be regarded as a form of propaganda. An example is the United States’ second national motto, In God We Trust, which is printed on currency.

Universities and other institutions are commonly represented by mottoes. Families sometimes have mottoes, and individuals can even have personal mottoes. Many cities also have mottoes. This article focuses on mottoes that represent nations, states, provinces and similar jurisdictions.

Mottoes are among the most popular and important of government symbols, ranking among flags, coats of arms and national anthems. Indeed, many mottoes are displayed on coats of arms and even on flags.

Note that national mottoes aren’t necessarily officially adopted as such. They may be considered national mottoes merely by virtue of their placement on other national symbols, such as flags or coats of arms. The origins of some mottoes have been lost in time; such mottoes may be considered national mottoes by tradition.

Form & Language

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Many mottoes are tripartite. In other words, they feature three words or ideas. The most famous is probably France’s Liberté, égalité, fraternité, which translates “Liberty, equality, brotherhood.” This tripartite motto is complemented by the most famous tricolor flag.

Other examples include the Dominican Republic’s Dios, Patria, Libertad (God, Country, Liberty) and Pennsylvania’s “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”

But phrases with just two key words seem to be more popular among national mottoes. Examples include Anguilla’s “Strength and Endurance” and Cuba’s Patria y Libertad (Homeland and Liberty).

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Mottoes can be much longer, such as Armenia’s “Remembrance of the past, strength for the future.” Rhode Island’s motto is a simple “Hope.”

Fraternities and sororities typically have their mottoes (which are usually secret) in the Greek language. But most mottoes are traditionally designated in either Latin or the local language. French is another popular motto language. This simply reflects the fact that Latin and French each served as the principal international language for a long period of time.

Today, English has become the most popular international language. So it isn’t surprising that many nations have English mottoes.

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In heraldry, a motto is often displayed on a scroll, which is typically placed below the shield. However, the motto sometimes appears at the top of the design, as in the Dominican Republic’s coat of arms.

Some flags, arms or seals go one step further, visually complementing the motto. For example, Belize’s motto, Sub Umbra Floreo, translates “Under the shade I flourish.” It alludes to the national tree, the mahogany, which has played an important role in local commerce.

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Belize’s coat of arms features a mahogany towering over two woodcutters and a shield, with the words SUB UMBRA FLOREO on a scroll near the bottom of the design. The arms is also featured on the national flag.

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Azerjaiban’s national motto is “Land of the Eternal Flame.” It is complemented by the national coat of arms, even though the motto itself isn’t featured on the arms.

National mottoes are scrawled across the center of the flags of Brazil (Ordem e progresso = “Order and progress”), Iraq (Allahu Akbar = “God is Great”) and Saudi Arabia ([Arabic] = “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet”), even though they do not depict the coat of arms.

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Meanings

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Mottoes commonly beckon to both the past and the future, as does Armenia’s. California’s motto, Eureka (Greek = “I have found it”), recalls a historic event—the discovery of gold. Alaska’s motto is “North to the Future.” It is recalled on the flag by the North Star. Some mottoes include the word “Hope,” which might be considered a symbol of the future.

Some mottoes resemble loyalty oaths, reminding citizens who they owe their allegiance to. An example is Cambodia’s “Nation, Religion, King.”

Barbados’ “Pride and Industry” is an example of a motto that describes how the people see themselves, or how they would like others to see them. (In this case, the word “Industry” probably means hard working, not factories and commerce.) The motto of the Australian state of Victoria reminds us that its citizens either enjoy or long for “Peace and Prosperity.”

Many mottoes focus on social and political ideals, using words like Liberty, Equality and Freedom. As mentioned earlier, France’s national motto advertises Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, equality, brotherhood).

Mottoes often speak of military power, courage or security. Some recall past wars or revolutions. Nova Scotia’s motto appears to celebrate both defense and offense, translating “One defends and the other conquers.”

Some mottoes are simply inspirational, such as Bahamas’ “Forever onward upward together.” Of course, this particular motto also points to the future.

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Some of the most unique mottoes focus on local features. One of my favorites is Western Australia’s Cygnis Insignis, which translates “Distinguished by its Swans.” Western Australia’s official bird is the black swan, which is depicted on the coat of arms and flag.

Another quirky motto I find delightful is Quebec’s Je me souviens. (The words are in French, not Latin, by the way.) It means “I remember.”

Slogans

Wikipedia defines slogan as “a memorable motto or phrase used in a political, commercial, religious and other context as a repetitive expression of an idea or purpose.” Merriam-Webster Online defines slogan as “a word or phrase used to express a characteristic position or stand or a goal to be achieved” or “a brief attention-getting phrase used in advertising or promotion.”

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Several U.S. states have official slogans. Nevada’s resembles a political slogan recalling the state’s creation during the Civil War—“Battle Born.” (Nevada’s motto is “All for Our Country.)”

New Mexico and South Dakota adopted official slogans that were apparently designed to promote tourism. “Everybody is Somebody in New Mexico” is nearly meaningless, but it sounds cool. South Dakota’s official slogan, “Great Faces, Great Places,” alludes to Mt. Rushmore, the state’s greatest tourist attraction. It complements the state’s official nickname, “Mount Rushmore State.”

As you can see, mottoes, slogans and nicknames may overlap. An example of an official motto used as a tourism slogan is “Aruba One Happy Island.” Indeed, the words “One Happy Island” are even featured on local license plates.

E Pluribus Unum

If one could combine all the world’s mottoes into a single motto that represents humankind, the result might be E pluribus unum, “One out of many.” In fact, just such a motto has long represented the world’s premier multicultural nation, the United States.

But powerful forces have attempted to replace our first national motto with a more divisive religious motto. It is a classic tale of political intrigue, propaganda and corporate corruption.


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