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What does "E Pluribus Unum" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The phrase "e pluribus unum" is Latin, and it translates literally as "out of many, one." Many people are familiar with this phrase from the context of the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on some American currency and government documents. Several organizations have also adopted the phrase as their mottos, both in the United States and abroad.

This phrase has murky origins that are difficult to pin down. A similar phrase appears in the works of Virgil, specifically in a recipe for salad, or at least so claims Bill Bryson in Made in America, a survey of American English. The term was also used by Gentlemen's Magazine, a popular publication among the upper classes in the 18th century. Every year, the publication would print an issue featuring the best work from the previous year, and undoubtedly the upper class Americans in the government of the nascent nation would have been familiar with the magazine and this annual "best of" issue.

Whatever the origins, "e pluribus unum" was adopted by Congress in 1782 as an official motto, along with "annuit coeptis" ("he has approved our undertakings") and "novus ordo seclorum" ("a new order for the ages"). Almost immediately, the phrase was being integrated into design proposals for the Great Seal of the United States, and by 1795, it was also appearing on American currency. Incidentally, American currency was not widely standardized until the middle of the 19th century; prior to this period, banks freely printed their own currency, and shopkeepers also had to accept foreign currency, keeping a formidable table of exchange rates in their heads.

On the Great Seal of the United States, the phrase appears in the banner held in the beak of the American eagle. The busy eagle is also holding an olive branch and a quiver of arrows in its left and right talons, respectively. The phrase is meant to symbolize the union of the 13 original colonies, and their close relationship with the federal government. Over time, people have also taken "e pluribus unum" to refer to the ethnic diversity in the United States.

The motto appears on all modern American currency, sometimes along with the eagle and, more often, independently. The Great Seal of the United States is also featured on American passports, government documents, bills that have been signed into law, treaties, and other formal communications from the United States government. Incidentally, the Secretary of State is the keeper of the official physical seal of the United States, which is used over 2,000 times a year on official documents.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1000700 — On Nov 24, 2018

The US was founded upon "Hebrew Juris Prudence."

By anon318720 — On Feb 08, 2013

@Burlap: The US was not founded as a Christian nation. Far from it. The US was founded as a secular nation because they saw the amount of corruption in Britain's political system of the time due to excessive influence of the Church of England.

By Burlap — On Sep 24, 2010

@CoffeeJim, I think it would be ignorant to ignore the fact that this country was founded with Christian morals and intent. They may say that there is a separation between church and state but we know why most our politicians and public service people are god-fearing individuals. I am glad that "In God We Trust," is on our currency and proudly solute the flag, one nation, under God.

By CoffeeJim — On Sep 24, 2010

I had always know that E Pluribus Unum was a nationally adopted motto for our nation but never had I heard of the other two.

The one that disturbs me a bit is, "annuit coeptis." It is phrases like this that make me wonder just how far apart the church and state was intended to be by our founding fathers.

Embodied in this motto is the acknowledgement that a higher being or some other authoritative source has given us approval to come together as a nation. It is almost the same as saying, "one nation, under god."

The latter phrase wasn't adopted until the early twentieth century and I had always thought it was an attempt to keep secularism at bay.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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