Want a motto? Do it in Latin.
I am delighted to see that some of the contributors to the great British national motto competition realised that a bit of Latin might help out here. For it is truth universally acknowledged that a society in search of a slogan, must be in need of Latin – which usually puts things snappier and shorter and cleverer than the poor old English vernacular.
I mean, could you ever capture “Per Ardua ad Astra” quite so neatly in our mother tongue? “Through struggles to the stars” seems horribly cumbersome. It's actually only one word more, it feels more like three times as long. (There were in fact a couple of 'tribute' parodies of this posted.."Per ardua ad nauseam" -- or "Per ardua ad Robin Reliant (cant afford an astra)")
I know this truth to be fairly universally acknowledged, as my Faculty in Cambridge gets so many requests from Rugby clubs, charities, WI’s, etc., to turn some reassuring platitude into a Latin slogan that we have a specially designated motto-writer. Professor X (I’m not going to reveal his name for fear of increasing the workload beyond what is manageable) is kept pretty busy.
Well, the British motto suggestions fell into two camps: a few who picked up an existing Latin slogan and redeployed it more or less appropriately; and most who tried their hand at their own bit of Latin. The results of this were what my older colleagues would call “alpha/gamma” – that is, occasionally brilliant but let down by some awful Latin grammar (or alternatively, disappointing in their grip on the Latin language, but enlivened by flashes of genius).
Playing safe with bona fide Latin was John Marshall with “O tempora O mores” (“What times, what customs!”). This is a quote from Cicero in 63 BCE railing in the senate against the standards of his own day and at the terrorist Catiline. Catiline was supposed to be bringing down civilisation as Cicero knew it, and planning to nuke Rome. The only trouble is, it is just as likely that Catiline was a relatively innocent stooge, set up by Cicero looking for reds under the bed, and for an excuse for a brutal campaign of summary executions (or, in our nicer days, detention without trial)…not a dangerous “terrorist” at all. So all the more appropriate then?
The trouble with inventing your own Latin is quite how to make it sound clever rather than “dog”. Not many succeeded. A few admitted their ignorance.
Archimedes thought the "National mottoes are for wimps" might sound better in Latin, but didn't risk it. Simon asked for the Latin for “Keep a stiff upper lip".
What would that be?
Well here we must go back to what out teachers taught us. The way you translate Latin is not “word for word” – but going for the nugget of sense (that’s why, they said, translating Churchill’s speeches into Latin – a task on which I spent many days of my youth – was such a good training in understanding).
So in Simon's case, we wont be going for “Tene labrum rigidum” (literally “keep a stiff lip” – a phrase no Roman would have even begun to understand). But something more like “Vincit qui se vincit” (“he conquers who conquers himself” – the motto of self-control). It’s a bit of a cheat actually, because the slogan was already a Latin one, included in an under-rated proverb collection of the first century BCE.
As for the "wimps" in Archimedes' query, it would certainly involve the Latin "molles" ("softies"), but I'm not quite sure yet how I'd render "national slogans". Any ideas?
For the rest there was an awful lot of very funny "dog" Latin (and don't forget that most "dog" is actually meant to be funny). Sorry, Joseph Botts, nice try with "perdisimus homines sumus" - but some more mugging up is needed here on noun and adjective endings ("Perdidissimi homines sumus", if you must -- "what wretches we are")! And much as I liked Richard’s “Magnus frater spectat te” (“Big brother is watching you”), I would have to opt for “Omnes videantur” ("Let all be seen”). The same principles are at work here as with the Churchill, go for the nugget of sense, not for the words.
But what would I choose as my own motto? Well, I'm going back to real Latin and I’ve got a clear favourite: “capax imperii” (“capable of ruling”)
That sounds grimly self-satisfied on its own, but you need to know what comes next. For those two words are part of what the historian Tacitus says, summing up the career of the elderly, few-month emperor Galba (68-69 CE). What follows is key. He had looked promising before he came to the throne, says Tacitus, but proved hopeless: he was “capax imperii nisi imperasset”. He was capable of ruling, if only he hadn’t ruled. Or, as one smart translator put it, “he had a great future behind him”.
That’s Britain really: capax imperii….nisi…. (and dont forget the nisi).