I find looking at state mottoes to be a matter of particular interest as a student of ironies. While leveling up on a quiz application I have on my smartphone, I correctly guessed that the state motto of South Carolina was “Dum Spiro Spero,” which, in Latin, means “While I breathe, I hope.” What hope does South Carolina possess? Given its history as a particularly rebellious state, even among a rebellious region of the United States, it is hard not to believe that its hope is for what it sees as freedom from burdensome oppression by the rest of the United States. Yet when the historical context is not taken into consideration, such a motto would be an inspirational one in other contexts, for hope is something that belongs to the living and not the dead. Inspired by my pondering of South Carolina’s curious state motto, I thought it worthwhile to look at some particularly ironic mottoes around the world for various nations and would-be nations .
Austria-Hungary had the motto “Indivisibiliter ac Inseparabiliter,” which in Latin means “Indivisibly and Inseparably,” until it was divided and separated in the aftermath of WWI into a handful of independent nations, several of whom (Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) have themselves further split. A more ironic motto would be hard to find, given that not only was Austria-Hungary itself highly separable and divisible, but that even its constituent parts lacked sufficient unity to hold together. Belgium comes close, with its mottoes “Eendracht maakt macht,” “L’union fait la force,” and “Einigkeit gibt Starke,” which means “Unity gives Strength” in Dutch, French, and German. When a divided but small nation that is neither united nor strong  feels the need to have its ironic motto in three languages, it is easy to see that there is a massive gulf between its rhetoric and its reality.
The Azores, a territory that for more than half a millennium has been under the rule of Portugal, has as its motto “Antes morrer livres que em paz sujeitos,” which in Portuguese means “Rather die as free men than be enslaved in peace.” This motto has further irony in that it was the Azores that helped model the slave plantation that brought such misery to the Americas in the aftermath of European colonization. Bermuda, most notable for putting its name on the Bermuda Triangle, has as its motto the Latin expression “Quo fata ferunt,” or “Whither the fates carry us.” In light of the disappearances and mysterious circumstances that surround the place, perhaps such a fatalistic motto is easy to understand.
The nation of Chile, which has remained at peace with its neighbors for more than a century, if sometimes embroiled in fierce internal political struggles, has a somewhat ominous national motto, “Por la razon o la fuerza,” which in Spanish means “By reason or by force.” This motto is an accurate reflection of how Chile has dealt with its internal politics, first appealing to reason, and then if that is unsatisfactory, appealing to the force of a military coup as in 1925 and 1973. Colombia, a nation that has known little freedom or order in much of its recent history, has as its particularly ironic motto “Libertad y orden,” which means “Liberty and order” in Spanish.
Indonesia, in contrast to many nations, at least recognizes the challenges of its diverse population, with its motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” which in Old Javanese means “Unity in diversity.” Interestingly enough, Papua New Guinea has “Unity in Diversity” as its motto, in English. Jamaica has a similar motto, interestingly enough, “Out of many, One People.” These are not too dissimilar to the traditional motto of the United States, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “From many, one,” in Latin. All of these nations recognize a diverse and complicated history with a goal of unity, a goal that has not always been easy to achieve.
Many nations and dependencies include references to God or religion in their mottoes. Tristan da Cunha , a small and isolated island in the Atlantic Ocean, has as its motto “Our faith is our strength.” The Confederate States of America had the wildly inaccurate motto “Deo Vindice,” or “God, Our Vindicator,” in Latin. Iraq has the somewhat ominous motto “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is greatest,” a particularly well-known Muslim chant. Tiny Monaco has as its motto, “Deo juvante,” or “With God’s help” in Latin.
Some nations have particularly beautiful or poignant mottoes when one thinks of their history or Geography. Little Luxemburg, a nation often fought over and divided by its larger and more powerful neighbors , has as its motto “Mir welle bliewe wat mir sinn,” which in Luxembourgish means “We wish to remain what we are.” Liberia, founded by freed slaves seeking liberty, has as its motto “The love of liberty brought us here,” something that is true for the 3% or so of Liberians descended from those freedmen, but not for the 97% or so of the remainder of Liberians who found themselves under the rule of those freedmen. Sikkim, a miniscule Himalayan kingdom that was eventually annexed by India, had as its motto the ludicrously inappropriate “Kham-sum-ongdu,” which in Tibetan means “Conqueror of the three worlds,” a claim of extreme hubris given that Sikkim is the size of Rhode Island. Finally, Botswanna, a nation that is full of dry and arid land, has the simple motto “Pula,” which in the Tswana language means “Rain.”
What is the purpose of a motto? Some mottoes reflect ideals, or a goal to aspire to, even if it appears so far out of reach as to be mocking. Other mottoes appear to represent the desires of only part of the population and not the whole people of a nation. Some nations honor God, others seek God to honor them, whether or not they deserve such honor. Other mottoes seem like prayers for rain or for national survival. Yet whatever the motto chosen, all of them present what purports to be an essential aspect of their character as states. Whether the motto reflects reality or aspiration, whether its motto is risible or extremely appropriate, all of them have been chosen by the leaders of the area to reflect their own identity and purpose. Yet even the most ridiculous of these mottoes reflects a hope that if its ideals are expressed than they can be achieved.
It is that hope we ought to celebrate, for all human endeavors require hope to succeed. To be sure, hope is not a sufficient condition for success. Nor does putting something in a motto make it real. Poor Sikkim could not even preserve its own independence in South Asia, being incorporated into India, much less conquer three worlds. Having a motto that one is a united nation does not make it so. Belgium is small enough it should not be the mess it is, but its territories are divided into four regions that barely communicate or interact with each other and that appear destined to shatter apart across cultural and linguistic lines, leaving beside a remnant city-state at its center in Brussels to serve as a fitting metaphor for the dream of peaceful European union. And who knows when and if the Azores will ever be a free area of their own apart from Portuguese rule? Even so, it appears necessary that before our hopes can be achieved, they must be voiced, even if it seems that putting them out in the open on paper only serves to make a mockery of those hopes in a world as cruel as ours, even if that ideal is as modest as wishing to remain as we are in a world determined to force change upon us, or the ideal for rain in due measure, or the desire to see unity instead of division around us. Surely such hopes deserve a better fate than unkind mocking.