By Fraser McKee
A careful look at UCC’s motto – Palmam qui meruit ferat – causes one to rethink exactly what it means – or what the Founding Fathers intended it to mean. The usually accepted translation from the Latin is “Give the prize to he who deserves it.” But is this a cautionary note to the Principal and Board to only award prizes – or selection as Stewards or Prefects, etc. – to those who genuinely merit them? Long and satisfactory performance is not enough. And must all agree on the interpretation of “merit”? Or is this a cautionary note to students that the prizes will only be going to those who strive to merit them? Maybe, best of all, it is both interpretations, fulfilling a double purpose in a single phrase. I rather suspect that Admiral Lord Nelson, with the same motto, and a tendency to vainness and ambition, selected it Ex post facto!
Mottos can indeed have a multitude of meanings, interpretations, in some cases. Others are clearly just a statement of fact: Canada’s A mari ad mare – From sea to sea. Or the Royal Marines’ Per mare per terram – By sea (and) by land. Some are simply an historical statement, more or less of fact: Gibraltar’s Nulli expurgnabilis hosti –Conquered by no enemy, although no doubt the Spanish would take exception to that claim established by the British. Or maybe Panama’s rather clever motto: Pro mundi beneficio – For the benefit of the world. True enough when it was selected. This one, in turn, causes us to consider whether it would apply in the Suez Canal’s case when Egypt blocked their Canal in 1956. Pro Egyptius benificio maybe, and even that’s dubious! Thus mottos often just open door to historical debates as to justification.
Others look to the future of the body selecting the motto: Carpent tua poma nepotes –Your descendants will pick your fruit, the motto of Monteria, Columbia; or the Presbyterian Church’s rather vague biblical reference – Nec tamen consumebatur – a reference to the burning bush that Moses saw that was never consumed (in Exodus), presumably inferring that the Church will never be “consumed.” Another that described what was desirable in its members was Velox Versutus Vigilans – the motto of the Army’s Royal Canadian Corps of Signals (and other Royal Signals) – Speed Accuracy and Watchfulness – inspirational, one hopes. Others are more personal for individuals – like the Prince of Wales’ Ich Dien – I serve. Although in this case, there are arguments it comes not from the Black Prince in 1346, but from the Welsh Eich dyn – Behold the man, a supposed statement of Edward I when presenting his new-born son to the Welsh after his promise their future leader would not speak English! True enough. The same applies in other non-Latin mottos, such as the 48th Highlanders’ Gaelic Dileas gu brath – Faithful forever – a good motto selected in 1893 when the Regiment was formed. Or maybe the Fraser Clan motto – Je suis pret – I am ready. Both are, in their way, open ended, a commitment – to something.
A few do not, from the outside, seem very inspirational: the Catholic seminarians’ usual motto of Obedientia tutior – Obedience is the (safer) path. Even Clan Ross’s Spem successus alit – Success nourishes hope. Others are simply a clever and in their way entertaining use of words: Juncti sed non uncti – Together, but not scrambled – the motto of the Spanish Air Force aerobatic team! The odd one is well known to many of us, albeit of very dubious Latin: Ne illigitimus carborundum – Don’t let the bastards wear you down!! It was in common use in my days in the early 1940’s, at least 65 years ago!
It’s a fascinating study, and one might even consider looking into factually why some mottos were chosen. A few are hard to determine what they mean: Clan Dundas’s Essayes – presumably from the French “Try?” Seems a not very inspirational motto. Maybe there’s a story here. This might be where the Internet can help. Or a research challenge.
Fraser McKee (UCC Class of 1943) was in the Cadet Corps at UCC, and rose to Drill Sergeant. In 1943, he decided he’d go into the Navy. He did his Sub-Lieutenant’s courses at HMCS King’s at Halifax, went to sea in an Algerine Escort, and came back to Toronto when released from active service in March of 1946. Mr. McKee rejoined the Naval Reserve, and then retired in 1975 from the Navy as a Commander. He was chairman of the Sea Cadets for Ontario, and Ontario President of the Navy League, and National President of the Navy League. He was Executive Director of the Navy League, and then retired. He is the author of seven books, all on Navy history or Merchant Navy history. His eighth book, a naval novel about the Arctic, will be out this year.