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In a single word or phrase, a motto is able to encapsulate the beliefs and ideals of an individual or institution. The motto of the United States of America is “In God We Trust,” but under that umbrella, each state has adopted its own particular saying to define itself. From words as simple as “hope” to obscure Latin phrases, these mottos are as diverse as the state themselves, and their origins may surprise you. Here are 20 of the most interesting state mottos and what they mean.
Virginia: "Sic Semper Tyrannis"
Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,” Virginia’s state motto references the words that Marcus Brutus was rumored to have uttered after the fatal stabbing of Roman emperor Julius Caesar in the year 44 B.C. When Virginia adopted its seal in 1776, the newly formed state was in the throes of the American Revolution. Its seal depicts the Roman goddess of virtue standing over the figure of tyranny, alongside the state’s Latin motto — a dramatic nod toward Virginia's valiant efforts to escape the rule of England.
Oregon: "Alis Volat Propriis"
Oregon’s Latin motto, “Alis Volat Propriis,” translates to “She flies with her own wings.” Although the state legislature didn’t officially adopt the motto until 1987, it was used unofficially as far back as 1854. At the time, the words were meant to honor the independence and courage of the pioneers who formed Oregon’s provisional government in the mid-19th century. The motto was changed to “The Union” in 1957, until government officials sponsored a bill to return to the original motto, which more accurately described the state’s plucky spirit.
Rhode Island: "Hope"
There’s no official evidence as to why the word “Hope” was adopted for Rhode Island’s seal in 1664, but a man named Howard M. Chapin may have an explanation. As the former Librarian of the Rhode Island Historical Society, Chapin wrote that the motto likely came from the Bible. Chapin believed that the phrase, “hope we have as an anchor to the soul,” may have served as the primary inspiration for the state’s short and sweet motto.
Hawaii: "Ua Mau ke Ea o Ka Āiena i ka Pono"
Hawaii is one of two U.S. states with a motto in an Indigenous language. (The other is Washington.) Its motto, “Ua Mau ke Ea o Ka Āiena i ka Pono,” translates to “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” These words were first spoken by King Kamehameha III, who ruled the Hawaiian kingdom from 1825 until his death in 1853. During his reign, Hawaii began to attract the interest of British colonizers who were keen on expanding their empire. After the Royal Navy captured Honolulu in 1843, King Kamehameha III appealed to Queen Victoria herself to disavow the actions of her men. She agreed, and when the Hawaiian flag flew over Honolulu harbor again, the king said the words that remain the state’s motto to this day.
“Eureka” is a Greek word that is often associated with discovery. It’s said the Greek mathematician Archimedes invented the word when he discovered the method for accurately detecting pure gold. As the story also goes, he happened to be in the bathtub at the time of his discovery, which prompted him to run naked down the street shouting, “Eureka!” — meaning “I found it!” The motto first appeared in 1849, around the same time as the California Gold Rush, when gold was discovered in the state. The state legislature officially adopted the motto in 1963.
Utah’s motto is another reference to the industrious insect that inspired its "Beehive State" nickname. The beehive has long been a symbol in the religious state, as Utah was formed by Mormon settlers who attributed their success to cooperation and hard work. So it made sense for the Utah legislature to give a nod to their state insect, the honeybee, with the straightforward motto, “Industry.” Since Utah has been ranked the richest state in the country for 12 years in a row, this motto seems quite fitting.
Wyoming: "Equal Rights"
Wyoming’s motto reflects the state’s liberal stance when it came to equal rights between men and women during the 19th century. As the first state to grant women the right to vote, serve on a jury, and hold public office, Wyoming was considered quite progressive back in 1869. The famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony applauded the state of Wyoming by claiming, “Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the Free.” As Wyoming was 51 years ahead of the country in terms of equal voting rights for men and women, its motto couldn’t be more appropriate.
Colorado: "Nil Sine Numine"
Colorado’s state motto has a few translations, varying from “Nothing without God” to “Nothing without Providence.” The meaning is largely the same, however, as the motto gives recognition to an unseen deity. Although there are no explanations as to why this particular phrase was chosen, we do know that it originated from an epic poem, Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil. In Colorado’s formative years, when mining was its biggest industry, miners often referred to the motto in jest, claiming the state was “nothing without a new mine.”
Vermont: "Freedom and Unity" and "Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat"
For hundreds of years, Vermont’s state motto was simple and straightforward: “Freedom and Unity.” But in 2015, 15-year-old Angela Kubicke was disappointed to learn that her home state had a motto in English, and not in formal Latin. Encouraged by her teacher, Kubicke wrote to her state representative with the idea for a Latin motto: “Stella Quarta Decima Fulgeat,” which translates to “May the 14th star shine bright.” Her clever idea referenced Vermont’s status as the 14th state to join the union; it was well-received and later adopted as a secondary state motto.
The translation for Maine’s Latin motto is “I direct” or “I guide.” Adopted by the state in 1820, “Dirigo” was inspired by the North Star — just as the North Star shines bright in the sky to guide sailors back to port, Maine is a northern state that leads its citizens to be patriotic. The state flag referenced the motto in 1901 with a White Pine Tree and the North Star on a simple white background. Although the flag has since been replaced, there's a petition to reinstate the former design as its symbolism is distinctive and powerful, just like the state motto.
Washington’s motto first appeared on the state’s territorial seal, which was designed during a surveying expedition of the area. On the seal, the Goddess of Hope points toward the words “Al-ki,” an Indigenous term that translates to “bye and bye,” and later evolved to mean “into the future.” Although it was the motto for the territorial seal, Al-ki was never adopted by the state legislature and remains the state’s unofficial motto to this day.
Maryland: "Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine"
Maryland’s motto, “Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine,” has remained controversial over the years. Made official in 1959, the state motto translates to “Deeds are manly, words are womanly.” Twenty years later, a law passed to soften the motto’s translation to “Manly deeds, womanly words.” However, many still consider the altered motto sexist. In 2016, Senator Bryan W. Simonaire filed a bill to change the language to “Strong deeds, gentle words,” although the bill was never codified into law.
Alabama: "Audemus Jura Nostra Defendere"
Marie Bankhead Owen, the Director of Alabama’s State Archives, chose the state’s motto in 1939. When Owen read the 18th-century poem “What Constitutes a State” by Sir William Jones, she was particularly inspired by the phrase, “Men who their duties know. But know their rights, and knowing, dare maintain.” She had a Latin professor from the University of Alabama translate “We dare maintain our rights” to “Audemus jura nostra defendere,” and the state’s decisive motto was born.
Montana: "Oro y Plata"
The only state motto in Spanish, Montana’s "Oro y Plata" means "Gold and Silver" and is a nod to the state’s illustrious mining industry in the late 19th century. Both metals played a large role in the state’s booming economy, with the presence of gold and silver lending a hand to the state’s nickname as “The Treasure State.” Montana’s universities pay homage to the state motto: Montana State University uses gold as a one of its colors, and the University of Montana uses silver. Copper was excluded from the state motto, as it wasn’t discovered in the mines until after “Oro y Plata” was adopted.
New Mexico: "Crescit Eundo"
At first glance, New Mexico’s motto, “Crescit Eundo,” may seem rather cryptic. Translated from Latin to “It grows as it goes,” the motto has philosophical roots. William Ritch borrowed the phrase from the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius, who wrote, “it grows as it goes,” when describing a thunderbolt gaining power as it moved across the sky. Historians theorize that Ritch believed New Mexico had great ability to grow in strength, with the same dynamism and energy as a powerful bolt of lightning.
New Hampshire: "Live Free or Die"
New Hampshire’s emphatic motto was borrowed from a toast given by a Revolutionary War hero. In 1809, General John Stark declined an invitation to a reunion with old war comrades, due to poor health, but he sent a toast by letter stating, “Live Free or Die; Death is Not the Worst of Evils.” The phrase was well received by his comrades, who told him that the toast would “continue to vibrate with unceasing pleasure in our ears.” The popular saying was later adopted as the state’s official motto in 1945.
Massachusetts: "Ense Petit Placidam Sub Libertate Quiete"
Massachusetts’ Latin motto means, “By the sword, we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” These words were written in 1659 by Algernon Sydney, a forward-thinking Englishman who was a champion of free speech. A staunch and vocal anti-royalist, Sydney was eventually arrested and executed for suspicion in a plot to kill King Charles II. Years later, Sydney’s ideas had a profound influence on American Revolutionary leaders. As such, his words were used on the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1775 and remain the state motto to this day.
Michigan: "Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice"
Although Michigan's Latin motto may appear rather enigmatic, the adage in English is quite straightforward: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Home to both an Upper Peninsula and a Lower Peninsula, Michigan is a state doubly filled with beautiful natural wonders. The motto’s simple call-to-action asks residents to take note of everything the state has to offer. Michigan's government website also claims that the motto aims to relay a sense of opportunity to anyone interested in relocating to the bucolic state.
Minnesota: "L’etoile du Nord"
The only state motto in the French language, “L’etoile du Nord” translates to “Star of the North.” The motto was chosen by Governor Henry Sibley in 1861, three years after Minnesota officially became a state. At the time, Minnesota was the northernmost state in the U.S., so Sibley felt the phrase was appropriate. He also appreciated that the French language gave credence to the state’s French-Canadian settlers and Voyageurs, who helped to define and develop the state.
North Dakota: "Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable"
North Dakota’s motto comes from a famous debate between two politicians in 1830. At the time, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Y. Hayne of South Carolina were arguing about protectionist tariffs on the Senate floor. When Webster declared, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable,” it became one of the most famous political phrases of the time. It was so famous, in fact, that North Dakota chose the saying as its motto decades later, when it officially became a state.