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The Discourse

State Mottos, Ranked

America's state mottos are pure chaos. Let's rank them.

U.S. state mottos on map
Caitlin Schneider / United States Department of the Interior, Public Domain

Like all the best blogs, the list you’re reading now was born in Slack.

We have a good time.

The task at hand seemed easy enough—and maybe even fun!—but I wasn’t prepared for all the weird journeys it would take me on, or all the discoveries I’d make. For one, it’s hilarious to me that there is absolutely no format when it comes to state mottos in America. Each state has one, but the style is fully all over the place. Some are in Latin, others are in Italian, some are lyrical, others offer a story, some are aspirational, others are descriptive, and still others are a single word that is neither aspirational nor descriptive. The history surrounding the mottos is also often shoddy at best. Every state is really just being themselves here, which is great, and gave the process of ranking the mottos an added layer of consideration. You’ll see what I’m talking about. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

50. Florida: “In God we trust”

I mean, what is there to say here, really? Boring and dumb. Not creative and entirely about “god.” The worst. Last place.

49. Maryland: Fatti maschi, parole femmine (Italian, “Strong deeds, gentle words”)

Whew, this might’ve been the weirdest rabbit hole journey of them all. While the translation for fatti maschi, parole femmine is listed above as “strong deeds, gentle words” (the “intended” translation) it more accurately translates to “Manly deeds, womanly words.” The phrase has been called sexist, though some argue that it’s not actually as offensive as it seems, but for our purposes, the drama surrounding it means it is simply not a good motto. Sorry, Maryland.

48. Alabama: Audemus jura nostra defendere (Latin, “We dare to defend our rights” or “We Dare Maintain Our Rights”)

Bad vibes and big gun energy with this one.

47. Mississippi: Virtute et armis (Latin, “By valor and arms”)

More battle energy. No thank you.

46. Ohio: With God, all things are possible / Imperium in imperio (Latin “an empire in an empire”)

Again with the god content. Several states have multiple mottos (like I said, it’s a lawless tradition!) and I prefer the Latin one here, but only because it’s hilarious to think of Ohio thinking of itself as an empire.

45. Arizona: Ditat Deus (Latin, “God enriches”)

Boring. Full of pomposity, but lacking in substance. I’m sure John McCain loved it.

44. Kentucky: United we stand, divided we fall / Deo gratiam habeamus (Latin,”Let us be grateful to God”; adopted in 2002)

This, like “in god we trust,” feels sort of rote and automatic, which neuters any meaning it might’ve carried. Sounds nice, evokes nothing but vague patriotism in those who might be so inclined. Pass.

43. South Dakota: Under God the people rule

It made me think, I’ll give it that. Reads like something someone thought of at the last minute when they realized they forgot to fill in the “state motto” line on the application to become a state and it was due in 45 seconds.

42. Arkansas: Regnat populus (Latin, “The people rule”)

This simplified version is better, and still I feel nothing.

41. Oklahoma: Labor omnia vincit (Latin, “Hard work conquers all things”)

A toxic edict that is not looking too good in the harsh light of 2021.

40. Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (Latin, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”)

This one is trying too hard in my opinion. Do less, Massachusetts.

39. South Carolina: Dum spiro spero / Animis opibusque parati (Latin, “While I breathe, I hope” / “Prepared in minds and resources”)

Both of these are fine, but not memorable. “Prepared in minds and resources” is kind of cool in the sense that it might as well read, “We’re ready.” That would be a great motto, actually.

38. Iowa: Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain

I like the vibe of this one, honestly. Not to make sweeping generalizations, but I imagine a farmer saying it and it’s cool.

37. Illinois: State sovereignty, national union

Truly cannot overstate how funny it is that it feels like everyone is responding to a different prompt.

36. Nevada: All for our country

Sure!!

35. Louisiana: Union, justice, and confidence

Okay!!!

34. Nebraska: Equality before the law

I do agree, I suppose.

33. Georgia: Wisdom, Justice, Moderation

Now we enter the block of states that chose two or three words and said “that’ll do.” I like the inclusion of “wisdom” here.

32. Delaware: Liberty and independence

Makes sense.

31. New Jersey: Liberty and Prosperity

“Liberty” gets a lot of mileage in state mottos.

30. Vermont: Freedom and Unity

And if not “liberty,” then “freedom.” But also unity. You really can have it all.

29. Tennessee: Agriculture and commerce

Love this one. If you’re going to be straightforward, I respect making it as dry as humanly possible.

28. North Dakota: Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable

They reached for a flourish here and I’m not sure it works, but we’re awarding points for effort here.

27. Pennsylvania: Virtue, Liberty and Independence

This motto feels very Pennsylvania, which I respect. We love a well-executed branding opportunity.

26. Wyoming: Equal Rights and Cedant arma togae (Latin, “Let weapons yield to the toga.”)

The first motto here feels very Wyoming to me and the second one doesn’t. She contains multitudes, folks.

25. Missouri: Salus populi suprema lex esto (Latin, “The Welfare of the People is the Highest Law”)

Missouri is right.

24. Oregon: The Union, and Alis volat propriis (Latin, “She flies with her own wings”)

I want to like this more than I do. Points for creativity, I guess.

23. West Virginia: Montani semper liberi (Latin, “Mountaineers are always free”)

Cute!! I really mean it, this is sweet.

22. Colorado: Nil sine numine (Latin, “Nothing without Providence” or “Nothing without the Deity”)

I’m breaking my own rule here but I like, “Nothing without Providence” even though it’s god content. Feels sort of “que sera, sera” to me.

21. Maine: Dirigo (Latin, “I direct”)

Apparently no one knows how dirigo came to be the state motto of Maine, but it’s meant to suggest that Maine believes itself to be a kind of”Polar Star” or guide for other states. Normally I would find that kind of presumption annoying, but have you been to Maine?? I do actually think the world would be better if more states were like it.

20. Texas: Friendship

Aw!

19. Utah: Industry

You said it, Utah.

18. Rhode Island: Hope

Me? I can’t argue with hope.

17. Wisconsin: Forward

I would have gone with “onward” personally, but yes, sure, “forward” works.

16. New York: Excelsior (Latin, “Ever upward”)

Aleks called this motto “dumb” in our convo about the state mottos, and while I do think it’s extremely New York (in the bad way), I also think it packs a punch and is inarguably a fantastic word. If you’re going the one word route, excelsior is a good word to pick.

15. Montana: Oro y plata (Spanish, “Gold and silver”)

This is somehow the only state motto in Spanish, and it’s descriptive in a way that’s also evocative and alluring. Also guaranteed to age well.

14. Indiana: The crossroads of America

Simple and true!!

13. Virginia: Sic semper tyrannis (Latin, “Thus always to tyrants”)

Okay so, sic semper tyrannis has a bit of weird history— it was supposedly uttered by Brutus (yeah that Brutus) following the death of Julius Caesar (he probably didn’t) and was also supposedly uttered by John Wilkes Booth after killing Abraham Lincoln—but at the end of the day, it’s a good ass motto.

12. New Mexico: Crescit eundo (Latin, “It grows as it goes.)

This motto has its origins in an epic poem called De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the poet and philosopher Lucretius, which references a thunderbolt gaining strength as it moves across the sky. Crescit eundo has been criticized for being confusing, but I think the mystery adds to its appeal as does the fact that it’s quite simply a dick joke.

11. Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice / Tuebor (Latin, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”) / (Latin, “I will defend”)

As a native Michigander, I struggled with this one. I’ve historically thought of our state motto as a bit dumb (I thought it had a kind of embarrassing, “wherever you go, there you are” energy) but then I read all the other state mottos and now I’m proud.

10. Minnesota: L’étoile du Nord (French, “The star of the North”) / Quae sursum volo videre (Latin, “I long to see what is beyond”)

Aleks also called this one “dumb” in our Slack convo, but I think it’s kind of the best of both worlds when it comes to being descriptive (it’s northern!) and expressive (a star!). Plus. it’s the only motto in French! The bar here is low, and this motto sails above it.

9. Connecticut: Qui transtulit sustinet (Latin, “He who transplanted sustains”)

This one may have biblical origins, but it’s a nice sentiment! It’s too bad the pro-immigration ethos didn’t extend beyond 18th century white people from England.

8. Kansas: Ad astra per aspera (Latin, “To the stars through difficulties”)

Honestly this is beautiful and only loses points for reminding me of the movie Ad Astra, which would have been 10,000 times better if Brad Pitt had just stayed on the moon and had moon rover chase scenes for two hours.

7. Idaho: Esto perpetua (Latin, “Let it be perpetual”)

This motto is a simple, earnest desire for the state of Idaho to exist forever and I think that’s nice! The history is a little unclear, but esto perpetua could have originated with Venetian theologian and mathematician Paolo Sarpi, initially said in reference to Venice. Idaho and Venice could not be more different, but the love of their residents is apparently the same.

6. North Carolina: Esse quam videri (Latin, “To be, rather than to seem”)

North Carolinian Paul called his state motto “pretentious” and Aleks called it a “bong rip-ass motto” and said it had “Succession vibes.” Paul also said that “Esse quam vider” is a “West Wing episode ass name,” which is 100 percent true. Still, I can’t help but like it! It’s from Cicero and it’s wise in that it puts forth a way of being rather than adhering to anything that might become unpopular or problematic in the future. And frankly, I love the “bong rip-ass motto”-ness of it.

5. New Hampshire: Live free or die

Look, this is a classic and it rules. I won’t hear otherwise.

4. Alaska: North to the Future

Straightforward and cool as hell.

3. Hawaii: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono (Hawaiian, “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”)

I don’t know if it’s my own bias or whether there’s something to the fact that the states with the most spectacular natural elements also have the best mottos. They all feel very true to themselves, proud but not annoying, and confident in their own ways. Hawaii is no exception.

2. California: Eureka (Greek, “I have found it”)

An absolute classic and rightly so! Jack, a native Californian, called it “good” and I agree. This motto has an energy of a state that knows its superiority. It came to the party in a well-tailored, stunning outfit, stayed for one drink, charmed everyone it came into contact with, and left without saying goodbye to anyone. Devastating and perfect.

1. Washington: Al-ki (Chinook Jargon, “Bye and bye”)

I love everything about this. Chinook Jargon is pidgin trade language of the Pacific Northwest that contains elements of Chinook, Nootka, English, French, and other languages, and the whole energy of this motto feels extremely chill and poetic. 10/10, great job Washington.

Okay that’s it!!! Thank you for going on this insane journey with me. What have we learned today? Almost all state mottos suck. Please feel free to yell in the comments and tell us what we should do next. State flags?? State rocks? State mammals? The theater of territorial pride is a mighty rich tapestry.