Mottos, aphorisms and apophthegms


In American English, motto and slogan are beginning to mean much the same thing, whereas in English the idea of a slogan carries a whiff of suspicion: certain things in Orwell, and the slogans of politicians and advertisers, have made us uncomfortable.

The origins of the words may be noted: a slogan, spelt slughorn in the 17th century, was originally a Gaelic war-cry, whereas motto is an Italian word that denotes a short witty saying.

But the two words do overlap, and in these days, when schools start to be run as businesses, there is the temptation to replace (for example) SOLI DEO GLORIA with STRIVING FOR EXCELLLENCE. The fashion for slogans using the present participle has not yet run its course; and the archaism ‘striving’ is thought to lend cachet, whether or not the users know the past tenses of it.

Part of the OED definition of a motto:
‘…a short sentence or phrase inscribed on an object, expressing a reflection or sentiment considered appropriate to its purpose or destination; a maxim or saying adopted by a person, family, institution, etc., expressing a rule of conduct or philosophy of life.’

Sometimes an aphorism is so attractive that it is adopted as a motto. The unattributed Roman saying SI VIS PACEM, PARA BELLUM has become the motto of the Royal Navy; and Cicero’s apophthegm SALUS POPULI SUPREMA LEX ESTO* has become the motto of the state of Missouri.

DUM SPIRO SPERO with its attractive paronomasia, but unattributed, has become the motto of dozens of European families, as well as the state of South Carolina.

There seems no evidence that the Spanish saying Under my cloak a fig for the King has been adopted by anyone as a motto—or perhaps the adoption has been a private one.

One pupil asked what was the word for a rude message on a T-shirt. There seems no immediate word for it—nor for the message on a wall in the ICT department of a neighbouring school: I’D LIKE TO HELP YOU OUT: WHICH WAY DID YOU COME IN?

Perhaps they are just rude messages.

*De Legibus, III.8


Next post: more about mottos, formulas and sayings.

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