Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Truth, Light, and Knowledge at Your Service

The idea of the elevator talk — sometimes characterized as the elevator pitch or the elevator speech — emerged in the late 20th century as a way to quickly and simply put forward an idea, product, or organization and its value proposition. The understanding is that you only have the duration of an elevator ride to get your idea across, so you have to strip it to its essentials. Starting long before this idea came along, however, organizations and institutions have striven to encapsulate their essence even more succinctly, and by proxy if necessary — in a short form of expression called a motto.

A motto (Italian for "word") was originally a word, phrase, or sentence attached to an object to explain or emphasize its significance. Mottos of old were likely to be seen on a coat of arms, a seal, or the entrance to a building, as they still are today. From this use it is easy to understand the development of the modern meaning of motto: a summary expression of values or principles. An interesting thing about mottos is that they seem to attach effectively only to institutions. People may talk about, or be described as having, a personal motto, but these do not have official status: there's no place for one on your Facebook page or your CV and you would seem as if you were putting on airs if you put forth your own motto in any but informal terms. Institutions, on the other hand, emblazon their mottos wherever they can and consider them a part of their identity. Certain institutions — such as universities, countries, and armed forces — might be viewed as somehow deficient if they lacked a motto.  But what do mottos really say?

To find out, we gathered up great bucketfuls of mottos that we searched online and elsewhere and then, using the excellent tools available at Sketch Engine, we built a small corpus: it contains mottos from universities, schools, countries, corporations, and government authorities at various levels from local police force to state. Our corpus has only about 5,000 tokens, but it's a big mashup of concentrated mottoville and it tells us some interesting things about the mottos that put forward the best foot of institutions in the Anglosphere today. Herewith, our findings.

Do you speak Latin? You probably don't, but if you want to understand the language of mottos, you probably should. After English itself, Latin is the most frequent language in which mottos for English speakers are framed. An institution that exists (ostensibly) for the betterment of humanity hardly dare raise its motto voice in anything but Latin. The motto of the University of Oxford, Dominus illuminatio mea ("Lord illumine me"), has been in use since the 16th century. The motto of the city of London, Domine dirige nos (reproduced here; it means "Lord guide us") has been in use since the 17th century. 

Two of the five branches of the armed forces in the United States have Latin mottos: the Marines (Semper fideles, "always faithful"); and the Coast Guard (Semper paratus, "always ready"). Just under half of US states express their mottos in Latin. Why the preference for a language that has not been actively spoken for centuries and is hardly known to most English speakers today? The deep penetration of Latin into all aspects of ecclesiastical, pedagogical, and cultural Western history from the time that English was born provided Latin with the status it enjoys today in mottos. It doesn't seem likely that Latin will be displaced from its perch in motto language anytime soon. The trend now is definitely away from Latin, towards more English-language mottos, but for now, if you're starting up a degree-awarding university that you hope will become a contender, or if you're declaring a newly independent country whose first language is English, your best bet for credibility is to stick with a Latin motto.

What do mottos tell us? It looks like they mean to tell us the truth, or suggest that we will find the truth in motto-bearing institutions: the single most frequent lexeme in our corpus is veritas, Latin for truth: its root, verus, is the source of English's aver, verdict, verify, and verity. After truth, look for your institution to bring light. Latin lux is a somewhat distant second to veritas in frequency, but if we add to it the related lumen, light and truth are neck-and-neck in mottospeak. Both lux and lumen survive intact in English with technical meanings; the light that Latin lux and lumen are supposed to illuminate us with is surely the figurative kind, e.g., understanding. Holding third place in the motto lexeme championship is scientia, Latin for knowledge, and the word from which we get science.  The great number of educational institutions that understandably wish to identify themselves with this commodity are probably responsible for its high showing.

Though he appears in different guises, it would be unfair to deny God credit for staking out a firm place the language of mottos. If we add together the appearance of Deus and its inflections (Deo, Dei) along with Dominus (Domini, Domino, Domine; Latin for "master" but used as an epithet for God), they surpass the instances truth itself. This perhaps arises from the fact that universities and government institutions both frequently find a place for God in their mottos.

Despite its great success in both the halls of academe and parliament, Latin finds little purchase in the mottos of the private sector, or in a number of modern institutions of authority, such as those at the local or regional level of government. What is it that these "English-first" institutions want to say to their various stakeholders?

God is still very much with us; it's the most frequent English lexeme (aside from function words) in our motto corpus. It may come as no surprise, however, that Truth, Light, and Knowledge are off the menu. Not far behind God, the second-most frequent English word in mottospeak is serve.

The third place contender — which should possibly be discounted as a function word — is your. However, if we add together the instances of you and your in English language mottos, they surpass the frequency of serve, so it seems sensible to give forms of the second person pronoun a place at the table. What does it all add up to? The companies and other institutions that emblazon English-language mottos seem intent to convey the idea that they are there to serve you!


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 3rd 2011, 4:33 AM
Comment by: Gunnar J.
Personal mottos are used in internet forums, aren't they?
Worth another article, perhaps?
Monday October 3rd 2011, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
How about the "veritas" behind most mottos, especially in the commercial world; which equates to "nil." (oops, hope I didn't offend any apostrophe-phobes).
Monday October 3rd 2011, 5:59 AM
Comment by: Hovannes K.
"Dominus illuminatio mea" ("Lord illumine me") -- is this the "official" translation by Oxford or a simply illustrative one done for this article? Just curious.
Monday October 3rd 2011, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Stephen K. (Kanata Canada)
I'm thinking that since 'Dominus' of 'Dominus illuminatio mea' is in the nominative case whereas 'Domine' of 'Domine dirige nos' is in the vocative, the former would be better translated "The Lord my illumination".
Monday October 3rd 2011, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
It seems my alma mater, Stanford, stands outside the pack with a German motto stressing neither truth nor knowledge but freedom: Die Luft der Freiheit weht. It is, to be sure, a translation from the Latin of Ulrich von Hutten, a contemporary and defender of Martin Luther: videtis illam spirare libertatis auram [don't you see that the wind of freedom blows?], but the translation was made by later German scholars and picked up by Stanford's first president David Starr Jordan.
Monday October 3rd 2011, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
My favorite university motto is that of the Universidad del Pais Vasco (Basque University), which of course is in Basque but sounds like a magic spell: "Eman ta zabal zazu." It means "Give and spread it," whatever "it" is.

I wrote a blog post about the wide world of university mottos: http://bit.ly/jz5ZZB I discovered some surprises: One US university has an Anglo-Norman motto; five Dutch universities have English mottos; and Gallaudet, the university for the deaf and hearing-impaired in Washington, DC, has an Aramaic motto, "Ephphata" ("Be opened"). And Jan S.: The post includes a link to a speech by former Stanford President Gerhard Casper in which he told the story of "Die Luft der Freiheit weht."
Monday October 3rd 2011, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Nora F.
Is it true that it is now a trend for young blades on roller blades to have their procreative organs tattooed with the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard ?
Monday October 3rd 2011, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments, and thanks especially to you, Nancy, for your interesting blog post. Another odd outlier among mottos is that of England -- which you would expect to have a Latin motto, or at the very least an English one. But its motto is in French: Dieu et mon Droit (God and my right). They're at least with the program in including God.

Hovannes: I don't know if there's an official translation of the Oxford motto. The university's FAQ page says this: "It is usually translated as 'the Lord is my light'. The words are the opening words to Psalm 27."

Nora F: I see a lot of tattoos on young blades, but I have not seen this.
Monday October 3rd 2011, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Wow, I wandered into the great barrier reef of academic discourse. I have been consumed by the great white shark of literary and latin pretense.
Thursday October 6th 2011, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
Kip: I would like to see you expand a bit on what you mean by "literary and latin PRETENSE." (emphasis added) I like your style of expression but I would like a little more understanding of your meaning.
Sunday October 9th 2011, 12:13 PM
Comment by: ANAND G.
Being a non- native speaker of english , while reading, its intriguing, that why one likes/ thinks to choose other foreign (out of one that belongs to) words for mottos,whether its an institution or an individual.

Apropos to your lounge, its a good nexus of thought about your title to write on this latin/ other language usage fot mottos!!! nice...

thanks for sharing!!!

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