A look at Mottos – Vocabulum Inquirerer

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.

1 thought on “A look at Mottos – Vocabulum Inquirerer

  1. Mark Laidlaw

    Thank you to Mr. McKee for this piece on mottos. This could start a very interesting discussion in response to a worthwhile question, which is, “Why did UCC choose ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat’ as its motto?” Although this does not address our personal meanings of the word “merit”, it is still worth discussing because this motto was clearly meaningful to those who shaped the culture of UCC.

    One possible reason for choosing this motto comes from Neil Seeman’s submission. In his piece Reflecting on Merit and My Changing Understanding of the UCC Motto, Mr. Seeman explains that the motto is actually written in the subjunctive, and is therefore not a suggestion or a guide for one’s behaviours, but rather a declaration of the ideal living state: Would that he who merits it bear the palm. If we are to interpret the motto in this way, then perhaps the motto is there to let us know that it is up to us to create an environment where merit determines success. In this “if only…” form, the motto suggests that the current state is not such that merit determines success, but that there are other influencing factors. Why should that be and how can we change that? The motto may be telling us that we have a hand in shaping our world and that it is up to us to see to it that each person receives his or her fair lot.

    Perhaps coming to an agreement about the term “merit” will shed some light on the reasons for UCC choosing this as a motto. Surely, without a sound understanding of the term, the motto itself loses its impact. In Mr. McKee’s piece Meruitus Palmam – Meriting the Palm, he suggests that “merit lies in the eye of the beholder”, but if that is the case, then how are Upper Canada students to live by this motto? How is one to deal with the inevitable scenario when one feels that one has merited the palm, while others may not agree? What are we to do if we witness someone awarded praise when we consider that person to not be praiseworthy? How do we know whose interpretation of “merit” we are to live up to?

    I realise and freely admit that this response has merely asked more questions while offering few suggestions, but, after all, this is meant to be a discussion, right? I would love to hear others’ thoughts.


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