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What Is a State Motto?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 17, 2024
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US states are associated with a wide variety of different symbols, including state flags, anthems, animals and even gemstones. One of the most common types of state symbol is the state motto. Every state in the Union has a motto, as well as several territories and the District of Columbia.

State mottos have been part of American identity for centuries. Several actually predate statehood. The motto of Rhode Island, "Hope," was adopted by the colony's general assembly in 1664, and was in use even earlier. Similarly, the motto of Connecticut, "Qui transtulit sustinet," ("He who transplanted sustains") was first adopted in 1662. The oldest motto in the United States is not a state motto but the motto of the territory of Puerto Rico, "Joannes Est Nomen Ejus" or "John is his name," which was adopted in 1511 by the Spanish rulers of the island.

Many state have mottos in other languages. The most common is Latin, which is used in 22 states' mottos. The state motto of California is in Greek, while the mottos of Maryland, Minnesota, and Montana are in Italian, French and Spanish respectively. The state motto of Washington, "Al-ki" or "by and by," is in Chinook jargon, a trade language used by Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The motto of Hawaii, "Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono" ("The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness,") is in Hawaiian.

A state motto usually makes a statement of some kind about the state's perceived identity. Many express religious sentiments, while others convey political opinions. For example, the motto of Missouri is "Salus populi suprema lex esto," or "Let the welfare of the people be the highest law," while the state motto of New Hampshire is "Live free or die." Others refer to the state's location or natural features, such as "L'etoile du Nord" ("the star of the north,") the state motto of Minnesota, or Michigan's "Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice" ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you"). Still others express inspirational sentiments such as Oregon's "Labor omnia vincit" ("work conquers all") or Maryland's "Fatti maschii, parole femine" ("Manly deeds, womanly words.")

Some states have more than one motto. For instance, Kentucky has both an English motto, "United we stand, divided we fall," and a Latin motto, "Deo gratiam habeamus" ("Let us be grateful to God.") North Dakota and South Carolina likewise have multiple mottos.

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Discussion Comments
By Soulfox — On Apr 15, 2014

@Markerrag -- most states seem to mess with nicknames, not official mottos. Take Arkansas, for example. The nickname has remained "Regnat Populus," which is "let the people rule" in Latin.

The nickname, however, has been modernized. Arkansas was once known as the land of opportunity, but now it is called the natural state. One can argue whether it's better to be known for opportunity or nature, of course, but mottos seem to be set in stone whereas nicknames are not.

By Markerrag — On Apr 14, 2014

State mottos are most often rooted in the history of the state and there are times when the attempt to modernize them results in a dismal failure. What, after all, is wrong with recognizing one's roots when it comes to reflecting on those things that make a state unique?

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