The putative irrelevancy of Latin

non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam.

I shall not die entirely – many a part of me will avoid Death.

Horace Odes 3.30.6-7
From time to time we read some jejune comment by a vapid school administrator that the reason Latin is no longer studied in the secondary schools is its irrelevance, impracticality and death.

Well, think again, Mr. Administrator!

Of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, twenty-three have mottoes in English.  Three use other modern languages (French in Minnesota, Italian in Maryland, Spanish in Montana), one uses a Polynesian language (Hawaiian in Hawaii), and one uses a Native American language (Chinook in Washington).  Of the remaining 23, 22 have Latin mottoes and one has classical Greek (want to guess which state?).

Knowing some Latin would certainly be useful when we travel to our many states.  For example, suppose you wanted to visit our (I live in Iowa [English motto!]) neighbor to the south, Missouri:  wouldn’t it be nice to know the meaning of salus populi suprema lex esto (“The well-being of the people shall be our highest law”)?  And if we wish to wander farther afield, how about Virginia’s, which, though itself eponymous of English royalty some time ago, probably most people can still translate:  Sic semper tyrannis!

Others are religious in content, as is Arizona’s Ditat deus (“God makes [us] wealthy”) or Colorado’s Nil sine numine (“Nothing without divine power”).  Some speak to war, like Mississippi’s Virtute et armis (“With decency and weaponry”) or Massachusetts’ appropriately elongated Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (“Through the sword [the state] seeks calm peace under freedom”).  And still others address government, as does Maine’s laconic Dirigo (“I direct”) and Arkansas’ Regnat populus (“The people rule”), the latter suitable from a state that recently gave us a president with strong populist appeal.

One state, South Carolina, has two mottoes:  the austere Animis opibusque parati (“Ready with spiritual and material resources”) and the playfully jingling Dum spiro spero (“As long as I breathe I hope”).  Rugged West Virginia’s Montani semper liberi (“Mountain folk are always free”) addresses its native sons and daughters.  Connecticut’s Qui transtulit sustinet harks back to 1788 (“Whoever brings [the state] across [the ocean] sustains it”), and New Mexico’s Crescit eundo (“It grows by moving along”) bespeaks a rather practical orientation.

Two states have mottoes that don’t seem to fall into any particular category.  Idaho takes an expansive view of things with its Esto perpetua (“[The state] shall be eternal”), and New York is of course the Excelsior (“Higher”) state.

I have saved for last the three states whose Latin mottoes appeal most to me.  Michigan’s, though longish, is wonderfully bucolic, grounded, and lacking in pomposity:  Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (“If you’re seeking an attractive peninsula, just look around you”).  Flat Kansas perhaps understandably looks skyward in its Ad astra per aspera (“To the stars by way of [overcoming] difficulties”), a motto which also used to appear on packages of Pall Mall cigarettes.  And last – the one that is probably my personal favorite – comes North Carolina’s Esse quam videri (“Reality over appearances”), a Latin translation, as it turns out, of οὐ γὰρ δοκεῖν ἄριστος ἀλλ’ εἶναι θέλει [ou gar dokein aristos all’ einai thelei] (“he [Amphiareus] wants not to seem the best but to be the best”) straight from the Seven against Thebes (line 592), a tragedy by Aeschylus performed on the Athenian stage in 467 BCE.  The full Latin reads malo esse quam videri bonus (“I prefer to be good rather than seem good”).  I like the motto as much for the sentiment as for its historical sense of literary tradition.

The state with a Greek motto, incidentally, is California, whose motto eurēka (εὕρηκα) means “I’ve found [it],” referencing the 1849 Gold Rush.  (It was also the favorite word of the evil scientist Dr. Sivana in those terrific Captain Marvel comics of the forties and fifties – but I stray flippantly amid this seriousness).  A person with a more mordant wit and view than I of California politics in 2011/2012 might suggest that this motto is (for other reasons), like Maryland’s Fatti maschii parole femine [‘men do, women talk’], inappropriate to our desperate age and should be changed to something more fitting like aphēka (ἄφηκα) “I’ve lost [it].”  Hmmm …

Will you now argue that there is no need for you to study Latin since I’ve already translated the Latin (and Greek)?  Well, pace Mr. Administrator (whom I really should stop addressing ad hominem), let’s jump in medias res:  cf. Virginia supra, and, mutatis mutandis, v. South Caolina, the phonic ne plus ultra of whose Latinity (i.e., the ludic paronomasia) deserves our kudos, i.e., plaudit.  In fine, I would note inter alia that my passim remarks qua illustration of the gravamen of this parvum opus impose per se no more onus on you than that sine qua non of Kojak’s cool, “Pax vobiscum, baby!”  Et ceteraad inifinitumad nauseam

Anyone here for studying some Latin?

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2 Responses to The putative irrelevancy of Latin

  1. heather says:

    how do you know so much about state mottoes?

  2. bookmarkbuzz says:

    Beautifully expressed! I’m going to find a beginning book of Latin and brush up on my high school nemesis.

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