South Carolina’s motto, “While I breathe, I hope,” is surely the most optimistic statement any one can make. Despite all, if we can draw a breath, we are hopeful and optimistic.
I’m sure most people don’t pay attention to such things, or even know what our state motto is, but “While I breathe, I hope” gives great solace to me. I am an optimist by nature and when it comes to the future and fortunes of my beloved native state, I sometimes vacillate wildly between despair and hope. (Today’s newspaper says we’re 50th in something again). But somehow through it all, I seem to usually come out on the “hope” side.
All this got me to thinking about other state mottoes and what they say about these states. Presumably, somebody didn’t just sit in a closet and make these up; somehow, they must have some value or meaning about the states, their history and their character.
First the basics; all 50 states, the District of Columbia and three territories have an official motto. Only Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands don’t have a motto — and for these tropical island cultures, maybe they should both just adopt the motto “Who cares?”
Most states’ mottos are in English or Latin. South Carolina, North Dakota and Kentucky have two official mottoes. Our other one is “Ready in soul and resources,” which seems a bit off to me. We as a county have two mottoes as well, sorta.
Since Colonial days, E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) has been on the official national seal, but it was never officially adopted as our motto. That honor went to “In God we trust,” but it seems like we didn’t get around to making this one official until 1956.
After looking at the official mottoes of all 50 states, it seems that they fall into five basic categories:
First, are the traditional, positive and often pious mottoes. Examples of these are Arizona’s “God enriches,” New York’s “Ever upward,” Wisconsin’s “Forward,” Colorado’s “Nothing without providence,” and American Samoa’s “Samoa, let God be first.” Pretty standard stuff.
Second are mottoes that tell you where the state is. For example: Alaska’s “North to the future,” Indiana’s “The crossroads of America,” Minnesota’s “Star of the North.” Michigan’s motto has a strange geographic twist: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look around you.”
The third group could be called the feisty mottoes. These all express some sense of truculence or defiance which is understandable in that many of these — especially those in the original 13 colonies — were written at the time of the Revolution.
Delaware is “Liberty and independence,” Massachusetts, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty’,” Virginia, “Death to tyrants,” Pennsylvania, “Virtue, liberty and independence.”
New Hampshire’s motto, “Live free or die,” is one of the few state mottoes that have managed to become at least somewhat well-known outside of the state.
The fourth group of mottoes is the short ones, often only a single word. Rhode Island’s is “Hope,” Texas’s “Friendship,” Utah “Industry,” Maine’s “I lead,” Montana’s “Gold and silver,” Tennessee’s “Agriculture and Commerce.” And the only motto in Greek is California’s “Eureka” (I have found it).
The fifth group includes my favorites; these are the ones that are just strange and even weird. New Mexico’s is “It grows as it goes,” Washington’s “Bye and bye,” and Maryland’s “Manly deeds, womanly words.”
My all-time favorite in this category is Puerto Rico, whose motto is “John is his name.” I have no idea what this means, but since it is the oldest motto, dating to 1511, and is in Latin, we can assume something got lost in translation over the years.
So, mottoes are like names; everyone has to have one even if it doesn’t always make sense or seem to fit. And we in South Carolina have ours — both of them.
As for me, “While I breathe, I hope” is pretty darn good. On most days it keeps me optimistic about our state even if the morning newspaper says we are 50th again on a good list or 1st again on a bad one.
While I breathe, I hope… pass it on.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group stated by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.