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What is a Motto?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A motto is a succinct statement of beliefs or ideals and may either be a sentence or a short phrase. An individual may have a personal motto, and an organization or business may have one that doubles as an advertising slogan. Nations can have them, as can politicians, who often express them through memorable slogans. Their purpose is to remind stakeholders of the foundational beliefs that underpin an effort.

A personal motto may either be part of a public family tradition, as with inscriptions that accompany a family’s coat of arms, or an individual and private choice. The statement may be in the person’s native language, but there are many that have been traditionally rendered in Latin. Here are some examples of personal mottoes:

  • Cooperatores Veritatis ("Co-workers of the Truth"): Pope Benedict XVI, chosen as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
  • Vi et veritate ("By force and by truth"): Sloan family — Scotland
  • Semper Eadem ("Always the same"): Queen Elizabeth 1 of England
  • "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God": Epitaph of Benjamin Franklin, adopted by Thomas Jefferson

A motto may be included in an organization’s advertising slogan. Unlike those that focus on name-recognition or product features, this type points to the underlying principles of the organization. Here are several examples:

  • All the news that’s fit to print. (The New York Times)
  • Inspiring Minds (Dalhousie University, Canada)

Notice that The New York Times motto refers to the organization’s discernment and discrimination in choosing what to present to their readership, as well as the breadth of their coverage. This slogan is so well known and associated with quality, that the parody publication The Onion used the slogan “all the news that’s fit to reprint” in promoting "The Onion Presents Embedded in America, Volume 16" of their archives. Dalhousie University also focuses on their relationship with their customers, who are their students.

National mottos are often connected with a country’s coat of arms or its currency. Some are more descriptive than idealistic:

  • A mari usque ad mare ("From sea to sea"): Canada
  • "In God We Trust": United States, introduced on currency in 1864
  • E Pluribus Unum ("Out of Many, One"): United States, introduced on currency in 1795

In addition to keeping a candidate’s name in the public eye and in the public’s ear, campaign slogan can be a motto, expressing the public relations version of the ideals or beliefs of the candidate or the party, as these examples show:

  • "Prosperity and Progress": Al Gore, 2000
  • "Compassionate conservatism": George W. Bush, 2000
  • "Government of, by, and for the people ... not the monied interests": Ralph Nader, 2000

Nader’s motto quotes from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, connecting Nader with everything that Lincoln expressed in that well-known speech.

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 Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon292913 — On Sep 22, 2012

I'm handing in a project and I am supposed to create a made up name for a country and then create a flag. You know how every state has it's own motto, well I need one. Any suggestions? My made up name for my country is "Puertotalian" which is Puerto Rico mixed with Italian.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 30, 2012

Many people use “Carpe Diem” as their personal motto. “Seize the Day” is a good motto to live by.

My motto is similar. It's “never put off until tomorrow what you can finish today.” I know that this isn't original, but it helps me get things done. I can't sleep at night unless I know that I have gotten all the tasks I possibly could have done out of the way.

By shell4life — On Aug 29, 2012

I live in a small town, so businesses here like to come up with slogans that incorporate that small town feel. They know that potential customers want to feel like they will be given plenty of attention and good service when they come to the business, so their mottoes often focus on this.

One car dealership has the motto “Where You Are Family” printed on every ad they run in the local newspaper. This might seem a bit excessive to someone from out of town, but people around here don't mind being treated like family. In fact, they desire it!

By giddion — On Aug 29, 2012

@wavy58 – Did you know that “In God We Trust” is also the Florida state motto? Florida never came up with one of its own, so it decided to use this one.

I don't know how many residents of the state actually believe in God, but I bet that whenever one of the many hurricanes approaches the state, several develop at least a temporary religion!

By wavy58 — On Aug 28, 2012

It's hard to believe that the United States motto is “In God We Trust.” I read some statistics a few years ago that showed how few people in this country actually even believe there is a God.

Our founding fathers followed this motto, but today, I don't know what politicians trust. I do know that politics and greed seem to govern the nation, and many have abandoned their faith, if they ever had any in the first place.

By alex94 — On Jul 14, 2010

@DinoLeash: Yes, every state has a state motto. Alaska’s state motto is “North to the Future”. That motto was adopted in 1967 during the Alaska Purchase Centennial. It represents Alaska as a land of promise.

The state motto of Michigan is “Si quaris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice” which is Latin for “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

By DinoLeash — On Jul 14, 2010

Doesn't every state have it's own "state motto"? If so, does anyone know what Michigan and Alaska's are? I have a report to do on those two states and I'm trying to find as much info as possible.

By sinefey — On Jan 31, 2010

The one motto that always sticks in my head since I first heard it and makes my laugh every time is Google's motto "Don't Be Evil"!

Is that great or what?! Funny and at the same time reminds themselves to not turn into the stereotypical monster corporation!

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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