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.
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.
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.