The (Brief) Stories Behind 15 National Mottos

You might not think about them much, but national mottos are a widespread phenomenon that can offer a glimpse into a country’s history.
February 14, 2018
The (Brief) Stories Behind 15 National Mottos

Mottos used to be very popular. The majority of countries in the world have one, but that comes as a surprise to many people because they aren’t mentioned much. Their most prominent role is adorning currency, flags and government buildings all over the world.

How does a country choose a national motto? Looking at the many that exist, several patterns appear. Many countries use their motto to list the traits they believe the country should live by (“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité“), some make allusions to God (“In God We Trust”), and still others mention the strength of the country (“Por la razón o la fuerza“).

To probe deeper, we looked into the stories behind a few national mottos — official and unofficial — around the world. While they aren’t as widespread as they once were, they still provide fascinating insights into the histories and the priorities of nations.

1. BelgiumEendracht maakt macht, L’union fait la force and Einigkeit macht stark

English Translation: “Strength Lies in Unity”
Year Originated: 1830

The first thing that’s notable here is the motto appears in three languages, which are the three official languages of Belgium: Dutch, French and German. This motto was chosen after the Belgian Revolution of 1830 to show the importance of unity after secession from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The phrase was originally used as the motto of the Dutch Republic, which lasted from 1581 to 1795. The motto was also popular enough to be used by Bulgaria and Malaysia, too.

2. CanadaA Mari usque ad Mare

English Translation: “From Sea to Sea”
Year Originated: 1906

While this Latin motto seems like it’s stating a straightforward fact about how big Canada is, it actually comes from Psalm 72:8: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.” This psalm originally became connected with Canada when the country was referred to as a “dominion” in the British North America Act in 1867. The motto’s first official use wasn’t until 1906, when it was inscribed on a Legislative Assembly ceremonial mace in Saskatchewan.

3. ChilePor la razón o la fuerza

English Translation: “By Reason Or Force”
Year Originated: 1810

This somewhat aggressive motto was chosen during the Chilean War of Independence. It is based on an ancient Roman dictum: “By counsel or by sword.” In the 20th century, there was debate over whether it should be softened to “By force of reason,” but the argument never went anywhere and the original motto remained.

4. Czech RepublicPravda vítězí

English Translation: “Truth Prevails”
Year Originated: 1918

When Czechoslovakia gained its independence in the aftermath of World War I, the new country chose this new motto, which comes from a quote by 14th century Catholic priest Jan Hus: “Seek the truth, hear the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, hold the truth and defend the truth until death.” While Czechoslovakia has changed names (now the Czech Republic, and maybe even Czechia) and borders since then, the motto has stayed the same.

5. FranceLiberté, Egalité, Fraternité

English Translation: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”
Year Originated: 1848

The French motto is perhaps the most famous in the world, and it’s gone through a few iterations. “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” was originally said in a 1790 speech by Maximilien Robespierre, who was a key figure in France’s Reign of Terror. The motto was one of many used during the French Revolution, but after Robespierre was beheaded and Napoleon Bonaparte took over, he got rid of “Fraternity” and made the motto “Liberty, Public Order.” Once Napoleon was gone, constitutional monarchist Louis Philippe I changed it to “Order and Liberty.” Then, a little while after that, the original motto was picked back up during the 1848 February Revolution and it was made the official motto of France shortly after. The motto was briefly replaced during World War II with the more militant “Work, Family, Fatherland,” but was changed back in the aftermath. This motto is also used by Haiti, a former French colony.

6. GreeceΕλευθερία ή θάνατος (Eleftheria i thanatos)

English Translation: “Freedom or death.”
Year Originated: 1820s

When Greece rebelled against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, “Freedom or death” became the war cry that led the movement. There’s also a theory that the nine stripes on the Greek flag are inspired by the nine syllables of this phrase. Similar phrases have popped up in various other countries, such as “Give me liberty, or give me death,” which is attributed to American Patrick Henry in 1775. “Liberty or death” is also the motto of Uruguay.

7. Indiaसत्यमेव जयते (Satyameva Jayate)

English Translation: “Truth alone triumphs”
Year Originated: 1950

This motto is a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad, a scripture from ancient India. The motto was established in 1949, after India gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Notably, this is very similar to the Czech Republic motto, but they are not related in any way. The full mantra is as follows:

Truth alone triumphs; not falsehood.
Through truth the divine path is spread out
by which the sages whose desires have been completely fulfilled,
reach to where is that supreme treasure of Truth.

8. IndonesiaBhinneka Tunggal Ika

English Translation: “Unity in Diversity”
Year Originated: 1945

Written in Old Javanese, this motto was ratified in the Constitution of Indonesia, which was established in 1945 after Indonesia gained independence from Japan in the aftermath of World War II. It comes from the 14th century poem “Kakawin Sutasoma” by Mpu Tantular. It was a particularly fitting choice because this section of the poem urges religious tolerance, which was an important idea in unifying the many, many islands of Indonesia. Years later, the motto “Unity in Diversity” was chosen by the European Union in reference to the many European countries coming together.

9. KenyaHarambee

English Translation: “All Pull Together”
Year Originated: 1963

The motto of Kenya is based on a tradition in which communities come together and work on local projects. It was chosen by the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, to encourage pulling together after declaring independence from the United Kingdom. There is controversy around the motto, however, because some etymologists believe the word comes from the Hindu god Ambee. Others insist the word is Swahili through and through. And yes, it was the inspiration for the name of the gorilla Harambe, who was killed in the Cincinnati Zoo in 2016 after a child fell into the enclosure.

10. Nepalजननी जन्मभूमिष्च स्वर्गादपि गरियसि (Janani Janmabhoomischa Swargadapi Gariyasi)

English Translation: “Mother and Motherland are Superior to Heaven”
Year Originated: 1935

The year this became the motto of Nepal is a bit hazy, but 1935 is when it was added to the emblem of the country. In any case, the motto comes from the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, attributed to the sage Valmiki. This line is said by Lord Rama — an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu — to his younger brother. It was chosen because it references the importance of motherland above all else.

11. PortugalEsta é a Ditosa Pátria Minha Amada

English Translation: “This is my Beloved Happy Fatherland”
Year Originated: 1911

This motto, depicted on the war flag of Portugal, is a quote from Os Lusíadas, which is a Portuguese epic poem published in the 16th century. Written by Luís de Camões, the poem is an ode to Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama and his journey to India. In this line, he is proclaiming his love for his home country.

12. SpainPlus Ultra

English Translation: “Further Beyond”
Year Originated: 1516

Spain’s motto, written in Latin, was originally the personal motto of Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. The phrase is a clever subversion of the phrase Non Plus Ultra (“No Further Beyond”), which was reportedly written on the Pillars of Hercules. In mythology, these pillars were placed by Hercules at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar to demarcate the edge of the world. When Charles V chose this new motto, he was referring both to the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus and to the striving of Spain to be a better, stronger country.

13. SwitzerlandUnus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno

English Translation: “One for All, All for One.”
Year Originated: 1868

Technically, Switzerland has no official motto, but this phrase has been highly associated with Switzerland for almost as long as the country has been around. During floods in the Swiss Alps in 1868, this phrase was used as the slogan to encourage the relatively young nation to come together and donate to relief efforts. While the phrase is also now more linked to French novelist Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, it’s been widely accepted in Switzerland as the motto of the country.

14. United KingdomDieu et Mon Droit

English Translation: “God and My Right.”
Year Originated: 1198

The United Kingdom, as a whole, technically doesn’t have a motto. “God and my right” is the royal motto, and it comes from King Richard I, who is reported to have used this as a battle cry at the Battle of Gisors, when England was at war with the French. This motto is notably in French, which alludes to Richard I’s ancestry and the fact that for a long time French was the language of England.

Other countries in the United Kingdom have retained their own mottos. Scotland has Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one cuts me with impunity”), which was adopted from the motto of the Order of the Thistle, the highest order of chivalry in the country. Wales has the motto Cymru am byth (“Wales Forever”), which is a pretty straightforward sentiment.

15. United States — In God We Trust

Year Originated: 1956

For many years, the unofficial motto of the United States was “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of Many, One”), which appears on U.S. currency and the Great Seal of the United States. This phrase was popular because it referenced how the 50 states came together as one country, but it was never made official. The phrase “In God We Trust” first appeared in the fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Americans usually only sing the first stanza), written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 to commemorate American victory in the War of 1812.

It started appearing on U.S. currency five decades after that when Reverend M.R. Watkinson petitioned the government to include a reference to God on the currency to fight “the ignominy of heathenism.” It wasn’t until 1956, however, that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law that made “In God We Trust” the official motto of the United States. It happened during this time because the United States wanted to flaunt its religion during the ideological Cold War with the anti-religious USSR. The motto has caused controversy because of the separation of church and state in the United States, but so far it has remained the official motto.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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