My new motto: Nomina Rutrum Rutrum
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: February 7 2010 20:22 | Last updated: February 7 2010 20:22
A couple of weeks ago I wrote what I thought was the definitive guide on how to sign off an e-mail and was confident that I had laid the matter to rest. Yet I’ve just received an e-mail that has given me pause. It was signed off “Audere est facere” – which is the motto of the Tottenham Hotspur football club and means “to dare is to do”.
I don’t like football. I don’t like men who go on about their football teams. I don’t like cheesy exhortations. I don’t understand Latin. But there is something about this that appeals to me.
In fact, I find myself strangely drawn to other football mottos. I like Bury’s motto: Vincit Omnia Industria (Hard Work Overcomes Everything) and I like Blackburn Rovers’ Arte et Labore (By Skill and Hard Work) even more.
Schools have some stirring mottos, too. A couple of years ago Gordon Brown was much mocked for quoting his motto: Usque Conabor (I Will Try Harder). Yet it seems to me that this is the best possible advice for every school child – and for every prime minister.
An even better motto is the startlingly honest Nous Maintiendrons – which is French for We Will Keep on Keeping on.
These mottos, though wonderful things in themselves, have a lot to answer for. The Victorians who thought them up were unwittingly laying the foundation stone for some of the most questionable practices in management. They are to blame for mission statements and were the beginning of the self-help industry.
My own school motto at Camden School for Girls was Onwards and Upwards (which as 14-year-olds we thought screamingly funny). Yet this sentiment is responsible for thousands of self-help books that say in about 50,000 words what the motto says in three.
Traditional mottos are good not merely because they are brief but because they come from an age that was pre-touchy-feely and pre-bullshit.
The newer ones show a shocking falling off. A primary school in north London has recently dreamt up the tiresomely wet slogan: Together Everyone Achieves More, which spells Team.
Traditional mottos are also strong enough to survive ridicule.
At William Ellis, the boys school over the road from the house where I grew up, the (excellent, in my view) motto – Rather Use than Fame – was subverted by the cool boys, who inked over some of the letters so that it read: “Rather U than me.”
Latin is hugely helpful in giving a motto some oomph. This is partly because it lends an air of sophistication, learning and tradition. But it is also because most people don’t have the first idea what it actually means and so have to go to the effort of finding out. Once they have done this, any banality in the actual meaning is camouflaged.
But the biggest advantage is that it is quite impossible to be naff, vague or moronic in Latin. Consider one of the most naff management exhortations: Walk the Talk. Translate it into Latin and you get Res non Verba, which is elegant and profound and is the motto of a private school in Yorkshire.
Companies should learn from these school mottos. It is no coincidence that the best company slogan of all time – Avis’s We Try Harder – is almost exactly the same as Gordon Brown’s school motto.
The motto of Eton College – Floreat Etona, or May Eton Flourish – might be sickeningly self-serving for a school in which boys still mince about in tail coats, but would do nicely in the corporate world, where making a company flourish is what the game is all about. Floreat FT has rather a good ring to it.
This leads me to suggest that all mission statements should be translated into Latin, and any that proved impossible to translate should be scrapped. “We aim to add value to our external stakeholders” would have left a man in a toga scratching his head and, therefore, has no place in the modern world either.
I have decided that I need a motto for the top of this column and the bottom of my e-mails. I’ve been toying with Vox Clamantis in Deserto, which means a voice crying in the desert and is the motto of Dartmouth College in the US. But I think it’s a bit self-important and not right anyway as I’m neither crying nor in a desert.
So instead I have created my own. In English it is To Call a Spade a Spade, but I have just got someone to translate it into Latin for me, and am quite delighted by the result: Nomina Rutrum Rutrum.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.