The 50 State Mottos, Ranked

Nearly all of the 50 states have an official state motto. At their best, they reflect the ideals of the country. At their worst, they can be pretty bad. Or at least confusing. We rank all 50 state mottos.

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State mottos are created to reflect a mission or a mood; in a few words, they should tell us something about that state. The best do, and the worst . . . are just bad. We look at all the state mottos, putting a spotlight on the best, grudgingly accepting the middle, and mocking the worst. 

 

  1. Maine: Dirigo (Latin for “I direct”)

Maine is a state at the northeastern tip of the country, but what it really wants to do is direct. We suppose this could be a reference to the state’s numerous lighthouses, but the Latin sounds more like the name of a Bond villain. They should get famous resident Stephen King to knock one out, maybe something like “Our state knows darkness” or “We all float up here.” 

  1. Montana: Oro y plata (Spanish for “Gold and silver”) 

With all due respect to Big Sky Country, “Gold and silver” isn’t trying very hard. Granted, Yukon Cornelius probably loves this motto, but it’s still random minerals found underground or in caves. New Mexico didn’t make their motto, “Bats,” did they? 

  1. Utah: Industry

In retrospect, we were a little hard on Montana. ANY state could say “Industry.” Going this generic, you’d think that Michigan’s would be “Cars” and California’s would be “Movies” and Florida’s would be “Theme Parks.” 

  1. Tennessee: Agriculture and commerce

Tennessee gets one placement higher than Utah because they decided to name TWO things that almost any other state could claim. If you went Tennessee Generic, then Indiana would be “Racing and Basketball,” Nevada would be “Gambling and Sand,” and Florida would expand to “Theme Parks and Retirees.” 

  1. Virginia: Sic semper tyrannis (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”)

Yes, this motto was adopted in the 1700s, and yes, it’s about defeating despots. But when your state housed the capital of the Confederacy and your motto is the thing that John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting Abraham Lincoln, it might not be a good look anymore.

H.P. Lovecraft, not known for writing state mottos. (Photo by Lucius B. Truesdell; Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Rhode Island: Hope

You could do worse with one-word abstract ideas than “Hope,” but it doesn’t seem like a landmark of effort. You’d think that Rhode Island, being the smallest state, would want the longest motto. Maybe a quote from native son H.P. Lovecraft? Something like “That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die,” or “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” or “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” 

  1. California: Eureka (Greek for “I have found it”)

It’s not the worst thing in the world to tie your motto to the phrase uttered when gold was discovered, hastening the rush to the area and the ultimate settling of today’s California. But it’s not super-inspired either. Possible updates could include “World’s Fifth Largest Economy” or “Another Year without Falling into the Ocean.” 

  1. Connecticut: Qui transtulit sustinet (Latin for “He who transplanted sustains”)

We’re sure that there’s a great context behind this quote, but it sounds a bit more like a threat from Dr. Frankenstein than an expression of state pride. 

  1. Ohio: With God, all things are possible

Okay, that’s just cheating. 

  1. South Dakota: Under God, the people rule

This motto shows a little bit more of an effort. Not a lot. But more. 

  1. Kentucky: United we stand, divided we fall and Deo gratiam habeamus (Latin for “Let us give thanks to God”)

Kentucky adopted its Latin motto in 2002, leading to the question, “Why does Kentucky think that it needs two mottos?” 

  1. Florida: In God we trust

Here’s another apology to Montana, and one to Utah. Obviously, this decision was made when someone was looking at the motto of the entire United States. Or a dollar. 

  1. Colorado: Nil sine numine (Latin for “Nothing without Providence” or “Nothing without the Deity”)

This motto, with its alternate translations, is totally fine, if a bit absolutist. 

  1. Arizona: Diat Deus (Latin for “God enriches”)

“God enriches” has a broader meaning, conveying the idea of making everything better, rather than just making people richer. Take a note, Montana. 

  1. Idaho: Esto perpetua (Latin for “Let it be perpetual”)

Idaho’s motto represents continuation, the idea of ongoing existence. This is much, much better than any of its various slogans that include the word potatoes.

  1. Arkansas: Regnat populous (Latin for “The People Rule”)

You have to give this one credit for making itself available to two different emphases. The general one would be, “Yes, the government should be ruled by the people.” The second interpretation makes it sound like something you’d hear at a metal concert: “Are you having a good time tonight in Little Rock? All right! The People Rule!” 

  1. Alabama: Audemus jura nostra defendere (Latin for “We dare to defend our rights” or “We Dare Maintain Our Rights”)

This feels like a pretty standard kind of motto. It’s somewhat pugnacious, but a little fighting spirit isn’t a bad thing. 

  1. Michigan: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspiceandTuebor (Latin for “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you” and “I will defend”)

So is having two mottos going to be a thing now? The “pleasant peninsula” one is nice and fitting, but choosing “I will defend” for the state that’s the home of the Detroit Lions is fairly questionable. (Fine, send us letters; it won’t change 2008.)

  1. Mississippi: Virtue et armis (Latin for “By valor and arms”)

Another perfectly fine “we protect our home” style of motto. Still, we think “Everybody loves to spell our name” might be better. 

  1. North Carolina: Esse quam videri (Latin for “To be, rather than to seem”)

This one sort of grows on you. The central idea, which is that it’s better to be something rather to appear or pretend to be something, is a good one, but it’s almost too philosophical for a state motto. This one and “Industry” are in two different categories entirely.

  1. New Mexico: Crescit eundo (Latin for “It grows as it goes”)

Not bad, but it also sounds a little bit like a tagline for a horror movie. “Coming this summer … Jordan Peele remakes … The Blob! It grows as it goes!” 

The State Seal of Vermont (Wikimedia Commons)
  1. Vermont: Freedom and unity and Stella quarta decima fulgeat (Latin for “May the 14th star shine bright”)

This pair has a great English lead with “Freedom and Unity,” which is about as solid and patriotic a state motto as you can get. However, the second motto undercuts the “unity” with some shameless self-promotion. “We’re all for unity, but we hope that our spot on the flag is just a little brighter than yours.” 

  1. Texas: Friendship

There is absolutely nothing wrong with promoting friendship in your motto. We’re just disappointed because this is Texas. No “Remember the Alamo”? No “Everything’s bigger” in Latin? No “Who shot J.R.?” You let us down, Lone Star State. 

  1. Oregon: The Union and Alis volat propriis (Latin for “She flies with her own wings”)

Oregon brings us a pair of head-scratchers. The Union? Well, sure. But are you professing that you’re part of the “Union” of states, that you’re pro-Union, or that you just like the idea of marriage? Incidentally, everything that has wings flies with its own wings; if you don’t have wings and want to fly, you can book that online. 


The October 24, 1936 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, featuring the cover “Exasperated Nanny” by Norman Rockwell.
  1. North Dakota: Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable (quote on the Great Seal) and Strength from the soil (motto used on the Coat of Arms)

“Strength from the soil” has a pretty all-American ring, doesn’t it? That other motto is actually a quote from Daniel Webster, the real-life Senator who inspired the character in the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét. That story was first published by, well, us in the October 24, 1936 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. 

  1. Indiana: The Crossroads of America

This had to go in the middle. Because it’s … yeah.  

  1. New Jersey: Liberty and prosperity

For a state that occasionally debates making “Born to Run” the state song (even though the state still doesn’t have an official state song), we have to say that we’re disappointed in the utter lack of Springsteen in the motto. “Liberty and prosperity” is good, but really, any state could pick that. No other state could claim “You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright” or “There’s a darkness on the edge of town” or “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?” Get with it, New Jersey. 

  1. Nevada: All for our country

This is a good one, but we hear that it was originally going to be “All for our country, but the house gets 20 percent.” 

  1. Massachusetts: Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem (Latin for “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”)

If you listen really hard, you can hear Ben Affleck explaining this in his Good Will Hunting accent. “It’s like we want peace, but we’ll fight you. Fight you wicked hard. But if we got that peace, then we gotta be free, too. Right, Will? Say I’m right.” 

  1. Maryland: Fatti maschi, parole femmine (Italian for “Manly deeds, womanly words”)

We’ll be honest; we’re not quite sure we get this one. It probably one of those things that means well but actually says something mildly offensive, sort of like that one aunt of yours on Facebook. 

  1. Illinois: State sovereignty, national union

Very good, Land of Lincoln. That’s exactly how this United States thing works. Congratulations, Illinois. Your state motto marks the debut of Constitutionsplaining. 

  1. Iowa: Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain

Simple, elegant, effective. Now if you could only do something about how long it takes to drive across you. 

  1. Louisiana: Union, justice, and confidence

This is another totally fine, patriotic-sounding motto, with the extra boost of “confidence” thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, it’s far less flashy than you’d expect from the home of Mardi Gras. 

  1. Kansas: Ad astra per aspera (Latin for “To the stars through adversity”)

We won’t lie; this motto is awesome. That could be because it’s also the motto for Starfleet in the Star Trek franchise. Either way, it originated in the works of the poet Virgil. Nice one, Kansas; carry on, wayward state. 

  1. Minnesota: L’étoile du Nord (state motto) / Quae sursum volo videre (territorial motto) (French for “The star of the North” and Latin for “I long to see what is beyond”)

This one’s interesting in that Minnesota adopted a state motto but never officially repealed its territorial motto; so, they use both. The French one is pretty on point, but the Latin one speaks of the future and westward expansion. That’s a swell pair of complementary phrases. 


The State Seal of Missouri. (Wikimedia Commons)

 

  1. Missouri: Salus populi suprema lex esto (Latin for “The welfare of the people is the highest law”)

Not only is this a great state motto, it should probably be tattooed onto all incoming Congresspeople. 

  1. Nebraska: Equality before the law

Honestly, Nebraska could probably step up and claim some Springsteen, too. In this case, however, The Boss isn’t needed. This is not only a great motto; it’s a great reminder. 

  1. New York: Excelsior! (Greek: Ever upward)

This is appropriate for two strong reasons: It reflects the upward climb of New York City, both in impact and architecture, as it became one of the preeminent cities of the world. The other is because it was the catchphrase of the late, great, and thoroughly New York Stan Lee. The comics genius signed off his “Stan’s Soapbox” with the phrase, frequently said it in public, and even got it into his cameo in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Good job, New York. 

  1. Oklahoma: Labor omnia vincit (Latin for “Hard work conquers all things”)

It’s a great sentiment, the spirit of which we’ve all probably heard from our mothers at one point. Can’t you just picture young Oklahoma getting lectured by the original colonies? “Remember, Okie; hard work conquers all things.” “Sure, Ma.” “Good boy. Try not to spill any oil.” “I know, Ma!” 

  1. South Carolina: Dum spiro spero (Latin for “While I breathe, I hope”)

This is a good, strong motto, poetic in its original Latin and inspiring in its message. (What? They can’t all be joke material.)

  1. West Virginia: Montani semper liberi (Latin for “Mountaineers are always free”)

We admit it: It’s kind of weird. But it’s also wildly sentimental, incorporating the mountaineer nickname and the notion of freedom at the same time. 

  1. Washington: “Al-ki” (Chinook for “Bye and bye”)

Credit Washington for adopting a territorial motto from the original inhabitants of the region. However, they still don’t have an official state version. The phrase can also mean “Hope for the future.” 

  1. Hawaii: Ua Mau ke Ea o kaĀina i ka Pono (Hawaiian for “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”

Let’s be honest — everything sounds better in Hawaiian. For example, Hawaii’s state fish, the reef triggerfish, is called the decidedly more awesome Humuhumunukunukuapua in the language. In terms of the motto itself, it manages to be spiritual, environmental, and wise all at once. 

  1. Delaware: Liberty and independence

We had to put this pretty high on the list for the ideology. But we get the feeling that Delaware wasn’t trying too hard. Either that, or they were being gracious; if we were Delaware, we definitely would have chosen “First!” 

  1. Georgia: Wisdom, justice, and moderation

Georgia chose admirable qualities to list in its state motto. It also sounds like it could be a list of the better attributes for the cleric they just rolled for in a D&D game. 

  1. Alaska: North to the future

In four words, this gets in everything that a good state motto should have. It has a strong controlling idea, imagery that ties it to its state, and an expression that could provoke inspiration. Plus, it’s much better than the previously proposed, “Alaska: It’s dark a lot.” 

  1. Wyoming: Equal rights

We like that Wyoming has a motto that reflects one of the great ideas of the country. It’s also mildly ironic, given the disproportionate power that Wyoming’s Electoral College votes have. 

  1. Wisconsin: Forward

Brief and to the point. Nice. Also, bonus points for not having anything to do with cheese. 

  1. Pennsylvania: Virtue, liberty, and independence

Okay, okay; we’ve cracked on other people for leaning on the easy sentiments. But this is Pennsylvania, home of Philadelphia and therefore the home of the Continental Congress. The building blocks of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were assembled in this state; heck, both were written there. So we can make jokes about appropriating patriotism and so forth, but Pennsylvania has it backed up by more than 200 years of history.  


New Hampshire license plates display the motto. (Photo by Jay Carl Cooper; Wikimedia Commons)
  1. New Hampshire: Live free or die

The idea behind this phrase rose to prominence in both the French and American Revolutions. Variations like “Give me liberty or give me death” pervaded the oration and editorials of the times. After the Revolutionary War, the state’s most famous war hero was General John Stark. In 1809, upon declining a reunion request due to poor health, he wrote a toast and sent it to the celebrants. The first line was “Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.” Thereafter, it became a popular phrase in the state before becoming the official motto. Comedian George Carlin once noted the stark difference in phrases that could be found on state license plates, highlighting the vast distance from New Hampshire’s “Live free or die” to Idaho’s “Famous potatoes;” Carlin allowed that the greater philosophical truth was probably closer to “Famous potatoes.” 

 

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Comments

  1. Here in Indiana, we have Illinois to the west, Michigan to the north, Ohio to the east, and Kentucky to the South. Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio all have laws permitting the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and both major party candidates for the governorship of Kentucky have pledged their support for such a law.

    This year, the relevant committee in the Indiana legislature refused even to hear arguments for a bill providing for medical marijuana use.

    Our motto should actually be, “Indiana, forever backward.”

  2. Rhoda Island: Neither a Road nor an Island.

    How is this not the state’s official motto?

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