Pondering the motto…

A visit to the archives on the subject of the motto with a few additional thoughts…

I am intrigued by the notion of mottos–the words we would use to describe our intentions or our values. If this were the fourteenth century, we might carve them on the lintels of our stately manors or embroider them onto banners to carry into battle. Today we tattoo them on our bodies or use them as signatures in our web postings–a trifle less impressive, but more accessible to the general public. (Did serfs have mottoes, I wonder? BTW, I have pluralized it as “mottos” and “mottoes” while writing this. AskOxford claims both are correct, but both look impossibly stupid.)

My family–the Mackintoshes–have a motto, “Touch not the cat bot a glove”, which is a variation on the ever-popular “Nemo me impune lacessit” when you think about it. (If you’ve forgotten your Poe, that motto is the one he trots out in “The Cask of Amontillado”. It translates to “no one touches me with impunity” and, if memory serves, is also the motto of the city of Edinburgh.) But while I do like the quirkiness of the Mackintosh motto, and it is understandable that the Scottish clans would need to take a firm stand with one another, it does seem a trifle unfriendly in this day and age, don’t you think? I am told the Cameron motto is, “Sons of the hound, come here and get meat!” which I adore unreservedly. Imagine that cry echoing over a misty moor while warriors are banging swords on their shields. CHILLING.

In my books, I give two mottoes to the March family–the formal “Quod Habeo Habeo”, loosely translated as “What I have, I hold,” and the informal and considerably more apt, “Audeo” or “I dare.” I like the idea of a family having a sort of universal philosophy, a thread of continuity through the ages, but what do you do if your motto is lacking? I was recently reading the memoir of a woman who bought a Welsh castle and found the Latin for “No Fear, No Vanity” chiseled on a lintel–a bit disappointing, I think. And Anne Boleyn’s “The Most Happi” seems particularly ill-chosen.

I have a few mottoes of my own and they vary depending upon my mood and situation, but there is one that rather neatly packages up the bits and bobs of my life and ties the whole thing in a pretty bit of Latin–“Specto subitus”, which is a welcome reminder to “expect the unexpected”. I have toyed with the notion of having it discreetly tattooed someplace, but I could just as easily paint it above the door of my study or have it engraved on notecards…