Visit theallusionist.org/state-mottos to read about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, am interested in language, but not enough to endure listening to language describing the dream it had last night.
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HZ: Do any of you happen to know what state mottos are for? Because it's quite hard to establish what they are for.
JULIE SHAPIRO: To put on commemorative items that you buy at the truckstop along the side of the road?
HZ: Each of the 50 states in the USA has its own motto. The motto might be found on the state seal, or the state flag; more often than not, it might be in Latin; it might be a phrase or a single word.
If you reside in the USA and you’re thinking, yeah, I know my state motto, it’s on all the license plates: ‘Montana: Big Sky Country’, say, in, or ‘Florida: The Sunshine State’ or ‘Famous Potatoes’- get in, Idaho.
Sorry, friends, these are not the state mottos.
And, if my admittedly small sample group of PRX staff is anything to go by, not knowing what your state motto really is is the state of state mottos.
JOSH SWARTZ: My name is Josh Swartz; I'm the curator of PRX Remix and an in-house producer at PRX. I am from the wonderful state of Massachusetts. I honestly didn't know it had a state motto. I think I would have assumed it was something like "Park the car in Harvard Yard" or something like that.
HZ: So they don't teach you your state motto in school or anything?
JOSH SWARTZ: No; we do the Pledge of Allegiance.
HZ: And that's your lot. Bit of nationalism, but not state.
JOSH SWARTZ: Right. Right.
KATHLEEN UNWIN: My name is Kathleen Unwin, and I am the sponsorship director for Radiotopia and PRX. I have been born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri.
HZ: And until today, what did you think the Missouri State motto was?
KATHLEEN UNWIN: Well I know we were called "the Show Me State" and so that was my first reaction is, "oh, we're the Show Me state.
HZ: What does that mean? That sounds quite sort of like someone's flashing you.
KATHLEEN UNWIN: Yes, show me what? I don't know! I think it probably refers to: we're not easily impressed; we'd like proof, we're natural born skeptics. So probably it was directed at politicians - don't give big flowery speech, show us with action. I think that's kind of true in how we think.
HZ: However, that is not your state motto, in reality.
KATHLEEN UNWIN: Apparently it is not. Thanks to the Googles, I have been corrected.
JULIE SHAPIRO: Hi this is Julie Shapiro and I'm EP of Radiotopia. I used to brag about the Ohio state motto, "The heart of it all". I mean, could there be a better state motto? Until I learned recently that that's actually the tourism motto. And the state motto is not quite as exciting; it's: "With God, all things are possible." When you drive into the state it says "Welcome to Ohio", and I can remember so clearly it used to just say, "Welcome to Ohio, the heart of it all," and I would have this warm fuzzy every time I crossed into the state, driving. I mean, it actually worked for me. And then at some point it switched to, "So much to discover." And now I get very angry every time I enter the state of Ohio because it's such an inferior motto.
HZ: So evidently mottos do exert some influence over a person’s pride or self-identity - it’s just that the mottos that people think are their state mottos but aren’t seem to be more powerful than the real state mottos.
ANDREW KUKLEWICZ: I had to look it up, because if you had asked me, I would have said the state motto of Texas is "Don't mess with Texas".
HZ: Andrew Kuklewicz is the chief technology officer of PRX, and ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ was actually an advertising slogan, that the Texas Department of Transportation started using in 1985 for an anti-littering campaign.
HZ: So why did you think that was the state motto?
ANDREW KUKLEWICZ: Well, first of all, it's everywhere. So it's on billboards, T-shirts. I think particularly in the time that I was living there in the 80s, it was just a prolific kind of - they didn't call them memes then, but it was like a meme at that time; everything was "Don't mess with Texas". And they had commercials on all the time - I remember as a kid, I watched way too much TV - and it was everywhere, and it was just an expression and to be honest, it's quite fitting: Texas has an attitude, you know; there's this sort of "we're cowboys, we could shoot you down at any time, and we will defend our state before our country, it seems like, and don't mess with us", right? So I looked it up and this is not in fact the motto of Texas. The motto of Texas is 'Friendship'.
HZ: That's quite different to "Don't mess with Texas", which seems quite hostile.
ANDREW KUKLEWICZ: Yeah I mean, even as I say this, I looked it up like a week ago and I feel like I have to look it up again because how can that be, right? I'm not saying people aren't friendly there, and there is a bit of that southern hospitality friendship too; certainly people in my hometown - I grew up in east Texas, this city called Tyler, and it is very friendly, people are very friendly, especially to your face. It's very much a nice friendly place; but I feel like as a motto...
I guess there's different reasons you could have a motto. Maybe it's meant to be kind of more aspirational or something. Or like a reminder like, "We should really try to be more friendly." Or it's to trick people or something? "Our state is all about friendship; forget our checkered history or our unbelievable amount of state pride, we actually welcome all comers, please, please."
KALI NAVE: I'm Kali Navé, and I’m manager of advertising operations. I’m from North Carolina. It turns out that our state motto is "To be rather than to seem", which is interesting because Southern states typically have the stereotype that people are fake nice to you, I would say. Or they they appear nice and then they kind of talk behind your back.
HZ: If this is the perception, what is North Carolina’s motto doing? Is it an effort to dupe, or to correct the stereotype?
HZ: Do you have any ideas what state mottos are actually for?
ANDREW KUKLEWICZ: Yeah... I don't know. I guess one purpose of it is for the people in the state to have some some pride in as part of their kind of identity. If you are from Texas, this is a thing that we believe in or aspire to or is true. I feel like mottos in general have a kind of aspirational aspect to it, or inspirational aspect to it, that this is a thing about us and a thing that we aspire to, an idea that we want associated with us. You know: if you're from Texas, we want you to think this about us, or we think about ourselves at least.
HZ: So it's like a combination of history, inspiration and marketing.
ANDREW KUKLEWICZ: Well, I think the way that it functions outside is very interesting, because I think they can serve some marketing purpose - or at least warning. I feel like there's some truth in advertising: if "Don't mess with Texas" was the motto of Texas, I think that would be good information for people when they first come there.
HZ: If we’re talking about mottos acting as a warning, well, here’s a good one.
MAGGIE TAYLOR: I'm from New Hampshire. The motto is "Live free or die."
HZ: Maggie Taylor runs marketing for PRX and Radiotopia. Her home state markets itself in a particularly uncompromising fashion.
MAGGIE TAYLOR: I know. I think it's because when I was 12, you didn't have to wear a seatbelt. They only recently introduced seatbelt law. There's no helmet law.
JULIE SHAPIRO: Smoking?
MAGGIE TAYLOR: You can probably smoke.
JULIE SHAPIRO: Concealed weapons?
MAGGIE TAYLOR: You can definitely have a weapon.
HZ: It seems like it's worded wrong, then, and that it should be "Live free AND die".
MAGGIE TAYLOR: Yeah I think that means that everyone just wants to be left alone.
HZ: New Hampshire adopted ‘Live free or die’ as state motto in 1945. It came from a letter written by General John Stark, a military hero in New Hampshire for his service during the Revolutionary War, particularly in the Battle of Bennington in 1777. 32 years later, Stark was too old and ill to travel to a reunion of Bennington veterans, so he sent a toast by post: “Live free or die; death is not the worst of all evils.” Er, cheers?
As an Englishperson, I often struggle to reconcile myself to the legacy of my country’s historical foreign policy. Several of the state mottos are a prod to the conscience as, like New Hampshire’s, they refer to America and England’s messy break-up.
JOSH SWARTZ: Apparently the Massachusetts state motto is "By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty".
AUDREY MARDAVICH: My name is Audrey Mardavich and I am the director of special projects at PRX. My home state is Connecticut. The motto apparently is: "He who is transplanted still sustains".
HZ: The motto arrived in the colonies from England in 1639, on a seal brought over by Colonel George Fenwick.
GENEVIEVE SPONSLER: I'm Genevieve Sponsler and I am the content coordinator at PRX.
HZ: Genevieve grew up in Virginia, which has a state motto that I wouldn’t mess with.
GENEVIEVE SPONSLER: It is "Sic Semper Tyrannis". It means "thus always to tyrants". It's very nice.
HZ: “Sic semper tyrannis” was added to Virginia’s state seal in 1776. Legend has it that Brutus yelled it during the assassination of Julius Caesar. Probably didn’t, in fact, but it is also famous because John Wilkes Booth claims to have shouted it after shooting Abraham Lincoln. The phrase was also on the T-shirt Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. So while Virginia’s choice of ‘Sic semper tyrannis’ commemorates resistance to authoritarianism in the War of Independence, the phrase’s history makes it troubling as an adage to live by now.
However, some of the mottos both nod to history and work in the present as aspirational phrases.
GINA JAMES: My name is Gina James and I'm a manager of development and operations at PRX.
HZ: Gina is from New Jersey.
GINA JAMES: New Jersey is "Liberty and prosperity”. It’s pretty dope. And I think that it also kind of - if you think about New Jersey like the way many people do, you either think of New Jersey as like the Jersey Shore type of idiot character that's just plastered and overtanned and obsessed with the gym and laundry and tanning - which I was, from the ages of 17 on through to my early 30s. No, kind of. But if you really take a look at Sopranos or just what's out there about New Jersey - Boardwalk Empire - I feel like liberty and prosperity really do - Jersey takes it to another level. A badass level.
KATHLEEN UNWIN: The actual motto... Do I have to say it in Latin?
HZ: I'm going to let you off the Latin.
KATHLEEN UNWIN: The Latin translates to, "Let the welfare of the people be the supreme law."
HZ: I wonder whether more people would know their state mottos if so many of them weren't in Latin. Latin maintains and amplifies the sense of history that a lot of the mottos carry. And in the case of New York state, where the motto translated is ‘Ever Upward’, its Latin form sounds much more superheroic: it’s “Excelsior!”
But Latin can cause problems.
KERRI HOFFMAN: My name is Kerri Hoffman and I'm the CEO of PRX.
HZ: Which state are you from?
KERRI HOFFMAN: Well, I grew up in New Jersey but I've lived in Vermont for a very long time.
HZ: And what is Vermont's motto?
KERRI HOFFMAN: The official state motto is "Freedom and unity", which is on the state seal. But I learned that Vermont has a new secondary state motto.
HZ: Like a subtitle?
KERRI HOFFMAN: Like a subtitle. And I'll do my best here. But the Latin phrase is "Stella quarta decima fulgeat", I think that's how you say that. “May the 14th star shine bright”.
HZ: Ah, that's pretty.
KERRI HOFFMAN: Yes, and it refers to the fact that Vermont was the 14th state to join the union back in 1791. This actually came from a 15-year-old high school student who was really into ancient history and she had studied Latin. And this made national news, but when this was announced, people confused this - they thought that Angela, this 15-year-old, wanted to craft an official Vermont motto for Latinos.
HZ: That's quite different.
KERRI HOFFMAN: Quite different; and then it exploded on on Facebook; the Facebook page said things like, "We're a thousand miles away from the Latino border. Why would we do this?" It turned into this totally sad, ridiculous, unfortunate embarrassing reality for our state which I love. But this mishap motivated all of the elected officials to push through this new Latin motto. And the governor who signed it, of course when he was signing it said, "Veni vidi signati".
HZ: Risky as it apparently is to invent new state mottos, I wonder if anyone else has ideas for more fitting ones for theirs.
GENEVIEVE SPONSLER: The first thing I think of, which isn't serious, is we have more cul de sacs than everyone else.
HZ: Oh, congratulations.
GENEVIEVE SPONSLER: Yes. That's a terrible motto.
HZ: "Virginia: it all ends here"?
GENEVIEVE SPONSLER: Yeah...maybe.
JOSH SWARTZ: Massachusetts people - really the state motto could just be "Massholes". If you are updating the actual motto for a 21st century audience, that's probably what it would be.
HZ: I wonder whether enough people would go for that.
JOSH SWARTZ: I feel like Massachusetts people are kind of proud of that snarky label.
AUDREY MARDAVICH: The problem with Connecticut - I don't know if you've ever been there?
HZ: I've been through it, so that doesn't count.
AUDREY MARDAVICH: Well, that's the problem, right? That's the only time you go to Connecticut, when you're going through it. So I think it kind of lacks an identity in a lot of ways, because people think of it as the place that you pass through on your way to New York, or vice versa on your way to Boston. I think Connecticut is a beautiful state and I am very pro-Connecticut.
HZ: So if they said, "Audrey, we want you to come up with a better state motto for Connecticut that makes people realize it's not just where you stop off between New York and Boston on the Chinatown bus," what do you think you go for?
AUDREY MARDAVICH: The pizza state. Connecticut truly does have the best pizza in the entire nation.
HZ: Wow. That's a big claim.
AUDREY MARDAVICH: They're known for their pizza. And they have a specific style: the New Haven-style pizza, which is also called 'apizza'.
HZ: Like 'apolitical'.
AUDREY MARDAVICH: Yeah, except, I guess, the opposite; it's like, very enthusiastic about pizza, rather than very not enthusiastic about pizza. But it's a thin-crust sort of Neapolitan style and that made its way to New York, but it really began in New Haven in Connecticut. So I'm going to go with The Pizza State.
HZ: I think that's really going to increase tourism.
AUDREY MARDAVICH: I agree. I agree.
HZ: I only got to cover a handful of America’s state mottos, but became more and more intrigued by them - and mystified by some of them, not to pick on any state in particular. If you live in one of the states, or another place with a motto, do you like it? Does it seem fitting for the place and the populace? Did it influence your inner being?
KERRI HOFFMAN: In thinking about it, the freedom and unity actually... now that I'm aware of the state motto, it actually means a lot to me now that I know it. I didn't know it beforehand, like it wasn't something I interacted with; but I really like it. And I think that it speaks exactly to the Vermonters that I have met since living there, and the politicians that I've met, and how do we how do we preserve independence and freedom while still having a civil society. So it actually is very meaningful to me, now that I know it.
HZ: Let's be cheesy for a moment. It also seems to apply quite well to what we're doing or what you're building with PRX and Radiotopia.
KERRI HOFFMAN: Exactly. That's partly why it speaks so well to me, because it's sort of like values I feel like I've had in my whole adult adult life, including the work that we're doing with Radiotopia - there's this very delicate balance of preserving freedom and independence and individual choices and also the power of the whole and the sum of all those parts. Absolutely. And so I thought that this question that you posed to me was very well-timed.
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The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a podcast collective that came into existence and continues to exist thanks to the generosity of you magnificent listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
levant, verb, archaic: abscond leaving unpaid debts.
Try using it in an email today.
The State of It was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Devon Taylor and all the wonderful people of PRX you heard from. Particular thanks to Julie Shapiro, and Sandi Barr and Andrew Kuklewicz, who told me about this subject. Martin Austwick provided the music.