A Look at Family Mottos

Genealogy has always been a bit of an interest of mine. It remains to be seen if that’s because of my love of history or because I am actually an 87-year old woman trapped in the body of a 29-year old. Regardless, I have spent many an hour on online databases, searching for my ancestors. I promise this isn’t an article about my personal family history. I’m not that self-absorbed… probably.

Realistically, genealogy is usually only interesting to the person who is talking about their ancestors. And I swear to god, if I have to hear another White person tell me that they’re ‘part Cherokee’, I will lose my tiny little mind. One of the things I do find universally interesting about genealogy, though, are family coats of arms. My favorite type are those with mottos.     

Not all families have coats of arms. And just because you have a coat of arms, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to use it. Similarly, not all families have family mottos. In fact, my limited research seemed to indicate that they are only found on some coats of arms, most commonly in the British Isles. While a lot of the Germanic countries have coats of arms for most families, most of them don’t seem to have mottos, unless they are from the aristocracy.     

If you google the phrase ‘family mottos’, most of the first four or five pages will be devoted to how to make your own family motto today. This seems like a profound waste of time to me, but who am I to judge? I wonder if people who write family mottos are the same people who still have stick figure families on their vehicles. I wonder if I’ve been writing for Sneer Campaign long enough to be that blatantly self-referential

Since many mottos were battle-cries at some point (something I want you to keep in mind as you read through this article), this is a bit confusing to me. I’m not sure what the modern equivalent of battle is for most people. Dealing with the self-checkout at the grocery store, maybe?

There are a few different types of mottos that I’ve seen. Since many of these coats of arms came about in the Medieval period, most of them are pretty straightforward.

“Alone” or something like it.

Religious Mottos

People in the Middle Ages were obsessed with religion, as evidenced by all the times they killed people for worshiping in a different way than they did. In addition to nine crusades, there were countless number of genocides committed against Jewish people, plus burning people (mostly uppity women) at the stake for witchcraft. What better way to show this religious zealotry than by including it in your family motto? Here are some examples of common surnames that have religious mottos:

Smith: Benigno Numine (By Divine Providence)
It’s a little presumptuous to assume that your actions are the will of God, but ok.  

Jones: Heb dduw, heb ddim (Without God, Without Anything)
This either sounds like someone who is deeply religious, or a very depressed, edgy atheist.

Davis: Heb Dhuw heb ddym, Dhuw a digon (Without God without anything, God is enough)
Apparently the Davis family wasn’t creative enough to come up with a better motto, so they just stole the Jones family motto.

Virtue Mottos

These are the ones most people probably think of when they think of mottos. They’re simple and uncomplicated. The motto of the US Marines (Semper Fidelis or ‘Always Faithful’) is one example of a virtue motto. Ideally, these are particular characteristics you’d like your family to embody, such as:

Murphy: Fortis et hospitalis (Brave and hospitable)
Historically, the Murphys were probably known for being bartenders who didn’t put up with anyone’s shit, at least, according to this motto

Johnson: Nunquam non paratus (Never Unprepared)
This motto is funny to me, because it’s a double-negative that strongly implies someone was trying to think of a diplomatic way of saying that this family “wasn’t… unprepared, per se… more like underprepared or perhaps just poorly prepared.”

Williams: Ensuivant la verite (By following the truth)
Either the motto for a family dedicated to honesty, or for a group of conspiracy theorists on the internet. You decide.

Presumably this motto says “touch chicken to mouth” but I sure don’t know Latin! Haha translated back it means “bone chicken” oh no

Weird Mottos

Okay, this is what you’re all here for. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if anyone reading this just immediately scrolled to this section. Ingrates. Anyway, following WWII, a lot of people became more interested in heraldry. This meant that several businesses made money from basically lying to people. Coats of arms have very specific rules about who is allowed to display them, and who isn’t. And just because someone has the same last name, it doesn’t mean that they’re entitled to use that specific coat of arms. For example, I am descended from someone whose maiden name was Murphy, but that doesn’t mean I’m entitled to go around shouting “Fortis et hopitalis!” every damn place. It’s likely a different branch of the family entirely, and I’d probably get arrested as a public nuisance.

In some cases, these heraldry/genealogy businesses just made up coats of arms and mottos for people. How does this relate to weird family mottos? Well, my sweet little ducklings, I firmly believe that there are some family mottos that are so weird and inexplicable that they almost certainly have to be real:

Brown: Floreat majestas (Let majesty flourish)
What majesty? Whose is it and where is it coming from? Is this just ‘majesty’ as a general aesthetic? If so, I applaud the Brown family for their dedication to opulence and maximalism

Wood: Tutus in undis (Always in undies… just kidding. It’s actually ‘Safe on the waves’, which is weirder, somehow)
I guess the Wood family were probably historically sailors. Either that or they vacationed at a beach in Rome and stole a sign telling people it was safe to swim there.    

McGinnity: Felis demulcata mitis (A Stroked Cat is Gentle)
My personal favorite weird motto is actually that of one of my ancestors, because apparently I am that self-absorbed. I would love to tell you that this truly bizarre motto is the product of some brave and epic encounter that they had whilst braining some English bastard with a shillelagh. Alas, I cannot. I really think my ancestors were just weirdos who were a bit too fond of cats… not unlike most of Sneer Campaign, upon reflection.

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