April 13, 2003
Today's Latin Lesson

After the thrilling events of the last few days, lot of webloggers have been quoting the Virginia state motto, but not all have gotten it quite right. The correct form is:

Sic semper tyrannis

The first two words are indeclinable, meaning the forms never change. Sic means "thus, so, in that way", and is the same word scholars and snarky journalists use to quote a misspelled or ungrammatical passage, like Dan Quayle's "potatoes [sic]". The sic assures the reader that the mistake was made by the person quoted, not the quoting author or his editor.

Semper means "always". Beginning Latin students tend to mix it up with saepe, "often", so I always remind them of the Marine Corps motto, 'Semper Fidelis', "always faithful": a U.S. Marine is not just "often faithful". Fidelis is singular, by the way, but can be either masculine or feminine. The plural is fideles, as in "Adeste, Fideles", the Latin version of "O Come All Ye Faithful". It's the source of Spanish name 'Fidel' ('faithful' as in Christian), and the English opposite 'infidel'.

Tyrannis means "tyrant", but is plural number and dative case. The English language has only traces of the original set of eight Indo-European cases, though German and Russian still have four or five each. (I believe they've entirely disappeared from all the Romance languages. [Oops! What was I thinking? In the comments, 'gek' reminds me that French has kept them for pronouns but discarded them for nouns, just like English. I believe the same is true for the other Romance languages.]) Half a dozen English words still have different forms for the nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases: I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them, who/whom. Of course the last distinction is disappearing fast. The 'S (and S') used to makes English possessives is something like the genitive (possessive) case, but the only word I know of that has a reasonable facsimile of an actual genitive form is 'who': 'whose'. The dative and other cases have completely vanished from English.

Anyway, the Latin dative case means "to" or "for" whatever the noun is, so tyrannis means "to tyrants" or "for tyrants". The literal meaning of the entire phrase is therefore "Thus always to tyrants", and it is often quoted that way, though it's hardly idiomatic English. There is no verb in the Latin, and more than one could be supplied. That's one of the neat things about Latin: it is very compact because so much can be left out. (There's no "a" or "the" either, and these are added as needed when translating.) The whole phrase could be paraphrased and spelled out in various ways:

This is what always happens to tyrants.
This is what always has happened to tyrants.
This is what always will happen to tyrants.
This is what always should happen to tyrants.

Of course, these meanings overlap, and there's no need to rule any of them out. The motto is wish, prediction, and general statement of fact, all rolled into one: 'this is what always has happened, does still happen, and always will happen to tyrants'.

The World Flag Database offers this image of the central portion of the flag (copied here so as not to hog their server):

Turning back to the spelling, I have seen more than one weblogger write:

Sic Semper Tyrannus

That's good Latin in itself, but it makes the tyrant singular and nominative (subject), so that it means something like "that's what a tyrant is like" (or "will be like" or "should be like"). That's not nearly so encouraging a thought, and is not the motto of the state of Virginia. I first saw the motto spelled that way many years ago on a van (in Virginia) that was campaigning for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. It wasn't a bumper sticker, either, but painted on the side with the whole woman-stabbing-prostrate-tyrant scene copied from the state flag. Someone should have asked a Latinist before spending the money on the paint job.

Thus endeth today's lesson.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 13, 2003 12:44 AM

I've known a couple of self-described 'feminists' who would've thought "sic semper tyrannus" much better than the 'proper' spelling. Maybe this one knew her Latin better than you thought.

Posted by: Larry on April 13, 2003 01:13 PM

I feel a little uneasy saying Sic semper tyrannis--to me, that phrase is associated with John Wilkes Booth (who said it after he shot Lincoln).

Is it fair that one man can ruin an ancient motto? No, but that's life.

Posted by: Andrew S. on April 13, 2003 05:56 PM

Funny you should mention it, since I must be one of hundreds of bloggers world wide who used the term. It came to my mind as I watched the statue of Saddam being brought down by a bunch of men with a sledge hammer. Although aided in the end by an American tank-like vehicle, I have no doubt but that they would have succeeded using only their sledge hammer, fueled as they were by determination. I could think of no term that better summed up the moment than the one presumably chosen by Virginia to tell King George to shove it. (Thank God I didn't attempt any first year Latin to personalize it for the conflict at hand, knowing as I do now that Dr. Weevil would be passing through the blogosphere checking our spelling and usage!)

Posted by: rlbtzero on April 13, 2003 06:02 PM


When I hear or see "sic semper tyrannis," I don't think of the Linclon assassination, but the episode of Seinfeld where Crazy Joe Davola jumps off the mezzanine onto the stage while screaming the phrase during the taping of Jerry's pilot.

Posted by: Xenophon on April 13, 2003 10:29 PM

In fact, French has as much of the accusative as English and a little of the dative, at least in the singular pronouns: je/me/moi, tu/te/toi, il/le/lui, elle/la/lui. In the third-person plural, ils/les/leur remains. Other than that, I don't think there is any other declension in the language.

Posted by: gek on April 14, 2003 12:38 AM

"I feel a little uneasy saying Sic semper tyrannis --to me, that phrase is associated with John Wilkes Booth (who said it after he shot Lincoln)."

To make matters worse, even though the phrase (originally a reference to George III) had previously existed on the obverse side of the state seal, it was placed on the state flag in 1861 -- shortly after the Virginia legislature voted to secede from the union. The implicit reference to Lincoln seems inescapable.

Before that the Virginia flag bore the motto: Virginia for Constitutional Liberty.

The current flag is nearly identical to the one adopted in 1861.

Posted by: Bruce Rheinstein on April 14, 2003 10:55 AM

Ah, Latin... always nice to see the blogmasses getting some edumacation! And you get extra points for not implying that the loss of cases in English is somehow a moral failing. ("If only we'd kept the dative case, we wouldn't have so much pregnancy out of wedlock!")

Posted by: language hat on April 14, 2003 03:32 PM

Still waiting for the Latin translation for "Serious Consequences" to be used as the motto for the USS Ronald Reagan.

Posted by: Tassled Loafered Leech on April 14, 2003 03:58 PM

Fascinating entry.

Exactly what is the dative case?

And do you have any links/info to/on the "original eight Indo-European" cases?

Posted by: IB Bill on April 14, 2003 09:45 PM

Jeez ... I must be asleep. You answered the dative case question. Sorry.

Posted by: IB Bill on April 14, 2003 10:26 PM

Based on Virginia's flag, I always thought it meant:

"Get your foot off my neck!"


Posted by: Parker on April 15, 2003 10:44 AM

Latin class is where I learned nearly all of my English grammar.

Posted by: Just John on April 15, 2003 12:07 PM

WebLife imitates art?

From Parker:

Based on Virginia's flag, I always thought it meant:
"Get your foot off my neck!"

This was a common joke in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, as a sign at nearby Ft. Marcy refers to it) - if memory serves, Shelby Foote mentions it in volume 1 of his "Civil War" trilogy.

Is it fair that one man can ruin an ancient motto?

Ruined? Who sez?

Posted by: Jeff Beranek on April 15, 2003 01:29 PM

'Ruined? Who sez?'

I sez. I'll never be able to read or hear the motto without thinking of Booth and Lincoln. To me, and to a whole lot of others (apparently including the Seinfeld writers), the motto is skunked. Sorry.

Posted by: Andrew S. on April 15, 2003 04:02 PM

Romanian is a Romance language which still retains some of its cases, namely two case forms: one for nominative/ accusative, the other for gentive/dative. E.g. omul (the man), omului (of/to the man), oamenii (the men), oamenilor (of/to the men). It is also the only Romance language I know which still has neuter as well as masculine and feminine nouns (actually, it's a bit of a cheat: neuter nouns are simply masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural).

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller on April 16, 2003 05:20 AM

So do the Romanians have fewer out-of-wedlock pregnancies?

Posted by: language hat on April 16, 2003 10:34 AM

I dunno. Mixing the genitive and the dative might be bad for public morals. Romanian also has a vocative, e.g. Ano! ("Hey, Ana!"), Omule! ("Hey, man!"), but in the first instance at least I think this is a borrowing from Slavic languages.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller on April 17, 2003 12:41 PM

Many years ago, when I was (IIRC) in grade school, I heard the phrase translated as, "Thus be it ever to tyrants." Archaic-sounding, but I believe it carries the gist of the various forms you provided.

Posted by: wheels on April 21, 2003 07:49 PM

question: was it used after the assassination of Julius Ceasar by Brutus or one of the senators? If not, when was the first time of record it was used? I, while watching the Saddam statue being pulled down, also said "sic semper tyrannis" to my wife and daughter(although I would have spelled it "tyrannus").

Posted by: cosj on May 3, 2003 12:19 PM

One would think Latin would prevent pregnancies of any kind, as most Latin students, when asked to congugate, decline!

Posted by: L. Allan on June 23, 2003 04:36 PM

Has anyone read a story[S.F.]about a mutated eagle called Semper Tyrannis because it could be sicced?I can't remember the author

Posted by: annie on July 10, 2003 05:35 PM