Heraldic Mottos

Heraldic mottos are significant sayings, often repeating the meanings of symbols, or charges, in a coat of arms. It’s the ribbon-like appendage to a crest or escutcheon, on which the saying is inscribed. Sometimes this is called a ‘Scroll’.

The word ‘motto’ is Italian, meaning witticism or sentence. So the phrase is meant to describe an attribute, motivation, or experience of the owner. Though these sayings are frequent on a coat of arms, they are never required.

Latin is commonly used, but any language is acceptable. Governments usually use their local language. So on Scottish arms you may find Gaelic or Scottish as well.

In England the scroll is placed beneath the shield. In Scotland, it’s placed above the shield.

Puns alluding to the owner’s name are fairly common. One good example belonged to Thomas Nevile, a clergyman/scholar at Canterbury and Cambridge. Coming from a wealthy, historic family, Nevile used his own funds to raze, move, and rebuild the campus at Cambridge.

Thomas Nevile’s motto ne vile velis and it’s pun

ne ~ means that…not
vile, vilis ~ means cheap, worth little
velis, velius, velieris ~ means hide, fleece, or skin.
Put together, it reads ‘in order that the fleece (diploma) is not cheap or worth little’.

Another ‘pun’ motto is the British Earl of Onslow. His motto reads Festina lente, punning his name as on-slow, meaning ‘to make haste slowly’, or as spoken by Caesar Augustus, ‘Hasten slowly’.

Some mottoes harkened back to deeds, especially when the owner had been to the Crusades or on a Pilgrimage. Occupations, locations, and experiences also yielded mottoes.

Others simply allude to the name with the use of a symbol which sounds like, or refers to, the name, such as a trout for the Troutbeck or Trowtbeck families. A stream, in Scotland, is a breck. Depending on the originator’s humor, intellect, worldliness, and creativity, a play-on-words might allude to their name or location.

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