Mottos and formulas

 

The subject of mottos is likely to come up if sixth formers read Horace, because his poems have provided so many. Students seem to agree that people like to be reminded of important things: and reminding seems to be a function of mottos and formulas of speech. Even the mottos that are primarily promoting a person or institution nonetheless carry a reminder of what should be.

Some of the most appealing mottos are perhaps those of families:

  • MALO MORI QUAM FOEDARI
  • AGE QUOD AGIS
  • GARDE TA FOY
  • SAPERE AUDE
  • NON DORMIT QUI CUSTODIT
  • MENS CONSCIA RECTI
  • DITAT DEUS
  • ESSE QUAM VIDERI
  • MANNERS MAKYTH MAN
  • NIL CONSCIRE SIBI
  • HINC LUCEM ET POCULA SACRA

Especially pleasing are mottos that have more than one meaning. Two examples are:

VIRTUS NON STEMMA: motto of the Grosvenor family, meaning either Quality, not birth, or Courage, not the garland.

FAIS BIEN CRAINS RIEN: not traced: apparently on a Cambridge chimney piece and quoted by Brian McGuinness as fascinating to Wittgenstein for its ambiguity.*

 A certain student noticed the similarity between

  • MORTALEM TE ESSE MEMENTO—repeated by a slave boy in the ear of a general who was going through the city in triumph
  • SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI—said to the Pope at his enthronement, while some fibres of flax are burnt before his eyes.

Each of them is the second half of a hexameter, but neither has a known author.

The student asked if they were mottos. In fact something like this is more correctly called a formula, which the OED defines as
‘A set form of words in which something is defined, stated, or declared, or which is prescribed by authority or custom to be used on some ceremonial occasion.’

 

Next post: Joys and pitfalls of ambiguity.

*Brian McGuinness, Wittgenstein: Philosophy and literature.

 

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