Castigat Ridendo Mores: What's In Your Motto?

Do you know your state's motto?

Not the bumper sticker slogan that your state's tourism department paid an out-of-state marketing agency $100,000 to create.

No, seriously, $100,000. A couple years ago, the Indiana Office of Tourism Development spent $100,000 to come up with "Honest-to-Goodness Indiana," which a lot of people hated. And who could forget Massachusetts' $300,000 slogan, "Massachusetts . . . Make it Yours" back in 2002?

Those expensive marketing slogans aren't actually associated with a state's founding philosophy and guiding belief. That's what the state motto does.

A state motto is something that's usually been around ever since the state was founded. And it's frequently written in Latin, which means most people don't know what it actually means.

For example, a lot of people think Alabama's motto is "Sweet Home Alabama," but that's just the state slogan, which they've had since 1951. It's also the Lynrd Skynrd song of the same name, which you started humming when I said "Sweet Home Alabama."

It turns out, Alabama's state motto is "Audemus jura nostra defendere," which is Latin for "Don't even try it, we're heavily armed."

Actually, it means "We dare to defend our rights," which sounds like they're picking a fight with Mississippi, whose motto is "Virtute et armis," or "By virtue and arms." So I'm picturing Mississippi and Alabama shooting it out in a Stuckey's parking lot next weekend.

Of course the two states' mottos are much tougher talk than Texas, the state where every person over 12 wears six shooters on their belts.

Texas wants you to think their motto is "Don't mess with Texas."

It's not. It's really not.

Their state motto is "Friendship."

Awwww, that's so cute! It's almost as good as "Land of unicorns and kittens." Or "If our name had an I, we'd put a heart over it." Or "Texas: the X is a kiss."

Sorry, Texas, I'm just messing with you.

Except "Don't mess with Texas" was an anti-littering campaign created by the Texas Department of Transportation in the late '80s. The campaign became so successful, it's been used in countless TV shows, movies, and it's even the motto of the USS Texas submarine.

Of course, the USS Texas is not the best ship in the US Navy. Because the best ship is friendship. (If it weren't unprofessional to write a winky face emoticon in this column, I'd put it right here.)

Speaking of not messing with states, New Hampshire has quite the chip on its shoulder with "Live free or die." It originally came from General John Stark, New Hampshire's most famous general in the Revolutionary War. In 1809, he wrote to some former comrades, "Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils."

It was also adopted as a challenge to the British, who fought another war with the United States just three years later.

Many states have issued similar middle fingers to England, including Pennsylvania ("Virtue, liberty, and independence"), Vermont ("Freedom and unity"), West Virginia ("Mountaineers are always free"), Massachusetts ("By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty"),Virginia ("Sic semper tyrannis," or "Thus always to tyrants"), and Rhode Island ("Suck it, England!").

Virginia's motto is a shortened version of "Sic semper evello mortem tyrannis," or "Thus always I bring death to tyrants." It's believed this was said by Brutus when he stabbed Julius Caesar, although some scholars believe he said, "that'll teach you to sleep with my wife."

Unfortunately, Indiana doesn't have a Latin motto. Ours is just "The Crossroads of America." While it's no "sic semper tyrannis," I always liked it. It means we're the emotional heartland, even though Lebanon, Kansas is the geographic center of our country.

It's also true in an automotive sense: Indiana has four interstate highways that all converge in Indianapolis, connecting us to Kansas City, Toronto, Birmingham, and Washington DC in less than eight hours.

But my favorite state motto is North Carolina's, which we would all do well to follow: Esse quam videri, which means "To be, rather than to seem."

In other words, don't act like it, be it.

If you want to be seen as loving, then be loving. If you want to be seen as helpful, be helpful. And if you want to be seen as a person of action, then act. Don't talk about being loving, don't talk about being helpful, and don't talk about acting.

And don't just talk tough, you have to actually be tough.

Just ask our bestest friends in the whole world, Texas.

(By the way, the Latin phrase in the headline, "Castigat Ridendo Mores," means "laughter corrects morals." According to Mental Floss, "it was coined by French poet Jean de Santeul (1630-97), who intended it to show how useful satirical writing is in affecting social change: the best way to change the rules is by pointing out how absurd they are." I'd like to think Laughing Stalk can perform that function from time to time.

Photo credit: United States Mint/U.S. Government (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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