Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A motto on the back of the Supreme Court building
"Justice: the guardian of liberty" is a motto inscribed on the Supreme Court building (Photo credit: Joel Carillet / Getty Images).


A motto is a word, phrase, or sentence that expresses an attitude, ideal, or guiding principle associated with the organization to which it belongs. Plural: mottoes or mottos.

Johan Fornäs describes a motto as "a kind of verbal key symbol for a community or an individual, which differs from other verbal expressions (such as descriptions, laws, poems, novels) in that it formulates a promise or intention, often in a striking manner" (Signifying Europe, 2012).

More broadly defined, a motto may be any brief saying or proverb. In modern usage, it may carry a connotation of being the signature saying of a company or organization. In these cases, a motto may be related to a mission statement or statement of values. 

In the past, mottoes were often formal saying in Latin, associated with institutions such as governments, universities, and royal and aristocratic families. As society moved forward, the concept of a motto began to become less formal and old-fashioned. Today, mottoes are often associated with marketing or branding and, as one might expect, are in the relevant modern language in order to convey their message in the clearest way possible.

The concept of a "tagline," or a catchy phrase about a product (usually a movie), also descends from the motto. If a brand or institution chooses to use a visual representation of their mission or history, such as a logo or coat or arms, a motto may be incorporated there as well.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see related topics:


From the Italian word motto which pointed to a saying or an inscription attached to a design. In turn, the Italian word has its roots in Latin, specifically the word muttum, or "word." That word is itself derived from a base word in Latin, the verb muttire, "to mutter."

Examples and Observations

  • "[M]ottos matter less for name-brand institutions. Yale University does have a motto--Lux et Veritas, or 'Light and Truth'--but its slogan might as well be 'Yale.' The brand needs no introduction.
    "But less-well-known colleges need to put more emphasis on their tag lines . . ..
    "Indeed, the slickest slogans often belong to for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix ('Thinking Ahead') and DeVry University ('On Your Way. Today.') . . .
    "Plenty of colleges have unofficial mottos, which make their way onto T-shirts and coffee mugs. For instance, Reed College's underground slogan is 'Communism, Atheism, Free Love.' Students at Swarthmore College experience 'Guilt Without Sex.' And then there's 'Where the Hell Is Grinnell?' and 'The University of Chicago: Where Fun Goes to Die.'"
    (Thomas Bartlett, "Your (Lame) Slogan Here," Chronicle of Higher Education, November 23, 2007)
  • "Don't be evil."
    (informal corporate motto of Google, dropped in spring 2009)
  • "Learn today. Lead tomorrow."
    (motto of numerous organizations, including Careerstone Group, LLC; Office of Indian Education Programs; Community Leadership of Licking County, Ohio; Northwestern Oklahoma State University; Armstrong Atlantic State University in Georgia; Douglas County School District in Colorado; the Philippine National Police Academy; and the Shanghai campus of McDonald's Hamburger University)
  • "You can get anywhere from here."
    (motto of numerous organizations, including Montcalm Community College in Michigan, McCook Regional Airport in Nebraska, Savannah State University in Georgia, and Oakland Community College in Michigan)
  • National Mottoes
    "Running down the list of national mottos, spine-stiffening phrases about peace, unity, freedom, death, order, justice, homeland, God, honour, solidarity, progress, strength, loyalty, and, in the case of Lesotho, rain, all feature prominently. Then it is just a question of ordering the words. Malaysia has opted for 'unity is strength,' while Tanzania has chosen 'freedom and unity' and Haiti 'unity is our strength.' By contrast, the Bahamas is altogether more uplifting, with 'forward, upward, onward together.' Italy, meanwhile, has adopted the somberly bureaucratic 'Italy is a democratic republic, founded on labour.'"
    (Tristram Hunt, "A National Motto? That's the Last Thing Britain Needs." The Guardian, Oct. 18, 2007)
  • From Latin to English
    "[E]ven remote Sedbergh School has had to move with the times. . . .
    "'Dura virum nutrix' was the original motto, which Morton would not have to translate but I will; it means 'a harsh nurse of men' and is a quotation from Virgil. After a lot of hard and skilled consulting, it was replaced with, wait for it, 'Learning and Beyond.'
    "It is tempting to see the shift from Latin to English, from limpid metaphor to limp vagueness, from classical precision to contemporary vacuity, as symbolic of, well, everything. Tempting but wrong. Both mottos are forms of branding. One is far uglier than the other, but neither tells the truth."
    (Joe Bennett, Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English. Simon & Schuster UK, 2006)
  • The Lighter Side of Mottoes
    "Not knowing is part of the fun! What is that, the motto of your community college?"
    (Jim Parson as Sheldon Cooper in "The Prestidigitation Approximation." The Big Bang Theory, 2011)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "motto." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). motto. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "motto." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).