Translating Famous Mottos from Latin to English: The U.S. Marine Corps, Harvard, and Princeton University

By John Garger

Unlike phrases, translating mottos from Latin to English often requires more leeway in understanding the meaning behind literal translations. Artistic license is used at times. Not for Marines! Learn about Semper Fi; remember November 10, 2009 was the 234th year anniversary of the US Marine Corps.

Translating the Mottos of Harvard, Princeton and the US Marine Corps The English language is filled with Latin phrases, some hundreds if not thousands of years old. The Latin language has especially influenced areas such as law, theology, science, and education. Many old institutions such as military branches and universities retain Latin mottos from the days of their inception, a time when Latin was losing its influence as the language of scholarship.

Although fewer and fewer people understand Latin, it retains an air of sophistication even though its users no longer speak the language. In the hundreds of common Latin phrases and mottos found in English, Latin lives on. Below are three examples of such mottos accompanied by a dissection of their grammatical constructions as well as a literal translation. Readers may be surprised to find that the accepted translation of these mottos sometimes agrees and sometimes differs from a literal translation.

A Translation of the United States Marine Corps’ Motto: Semper Fidelis

Semper Fidelis is the motto of the United States Marine Corps. However, the phrase itself dates back long before the Marine Corps (or the United States for that matter) ever existed. As far back as the 14th century, Semper Fidelis served as a popular family motto often adorning a family crest. This Latin phrase also served as the motto of several European cities including Exeter, England and St. Malo, France.

The Marine Corps adopted Semper Fidelis (sometimes abbreviated “Semper Fi") in 1883 as suggested by Col. Charles McCawley (1827-1891). Since then, it has served as the official motto. It is interesting to note that prior to this date, the Marine Corps had no less than three other official mottos since their formation 234 years ago, November 10, 1775.

The word Semper is an indeclinable adverb meaning “always" or “at all times." Indeclinable means that unlike other Latin parts of speech, it never changes its form. Fidelis is simply the nominative singular form of the word Fidelis (genitive Fidele) meaning “faithful" or “trusty." Together, Semper Fidelis literally means “Always Faithful." This is one of the few times when the common translation and the literal translation of a motto match perfectly.

Translating Veritas: The Motto of Harvard University

Founded in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. It is interesting to note that Harvard is incorporated in Cambridge, Massachusetts as “The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Harvard has adopted for its motto several Latin phrases over its long history, finally settling on Veritas for use on its coat of arms. As a single word, it is not a motto in the truest sense. However, the university continues to use this word as often as other universities use their mottos. So, for the sake of simplicity, Veritias is generally considered Harvard’s motto.

Veritias is a feminine third-declension noun meaning “truth" or “reality." In the genitive case (veritatis), its meaning changes to “honesty." That’s about it for Harvard’s motto. Perhaps in its simplicity, Harvard wishes to convey a single, non-ambiguous sentiment rather than leave its motto up for metaphoric interpretation.

The Motto of Princeton University: Dei sub Numine Viget

Unlike the motto of Harvard, Princeton University’s motto is much more interesting, with inconsistencies between its official and literal translations. Princeton University was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey and has called not less than three cities home. Originally located in Elizabeth, it moved to Newark in 1747 and then to Princeton in 1756. However, it wasn’t until 1896 that Princeton, NJ became its namesake when the institution was officially renamed Princeton University.

Princeton’s motto, Dei sub Numine Viget, is a combination of several of Latin’s grammatical constructions. As with most Latin sentences, let’s start with the verb. Viget is the 3rd-person singular present active indicative form of the verb vigeo vigere, a second conjugation verb meaning “to thrive" or “flourish." On its own, viget can be literally translated as “he/she/it is flourishing."

Dei is the genitive singular masculine form of the second declension word “Deus" meaning “God." Recall that the genitive case is the case of possession or ownership indicating to whom something or someone belongs. On its own, Dei may be literally translated as “of God" or “God’s."

The phrase sub Numine is an excellent example of the ablative of place where that indicates the location some action did, is, or will take place. Sub is an indeclinable preposition meaning “under." Numine is the ablative singular form of the neuter noun “numen" which means “nod" or in the case of God, “divine will." When in reference to the action of a deity, numen ultimately denotes the approval of God. As a phrase, sub Numine can be literally translated a “under the divine will."

Taken together, a literal translation of Dei sub Numine Viget is “he is thriving under the divine will of God." Princeton University prefers the phrase “under God’s power she flourishes." The use of “flourishes" instead of “thrives" is reasonable and the genitive can be translated as meaning either “of God" or “God’s." However, without an identifying pronoun, viget can mean “he/she/it is thriving." Since no pronoun is given, Princeton’s translation requires tacit knowledge that “she" refers to the university itself. To remove ambiguity as to the gender of the subject of the motto, the addition of the Latin pronoun for “she" is needed. The University would need to change its motto slightly to reflect this. For example:

Dei sub numine ea viget. (She is thriving under the divine will of God.)

The addition of the pronoun “ea" (from is, ea, id) makes it clear that the subject of the motto is feminine (referring to the university) rather than leaving it up to the form of the verb which in this case is ambiguous. Translation of the word numine as “power" rather than “divine will" is reasonable even though the two translations denote technically different concepts.

Simplifying Latin Mottos

Latin mottos are common especially for institutions that date back several centuries. Over time as Latin lost its hold as the language of scholarship, science, law, and theology, the literal meanings of mottos have given way to more convenient metaphoric translations. In the case of the Marine Corps and Harvard University, these institutions have been spared mistranslations of their mottos due to simplicity. The motto of Princeton University leaves much more to be interpreted since, as illustrated above, the literal translation and common translation conflict. Translation of such inconsistencies is a good exercise for students of Latin.