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The Secret Lives of Words column: The Space Force, Rome’s legions, and undies

Rick LaFleur
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Daily Comet

Columns share an author's personal perspective.

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Originally founded in 1982 as a command group within the U.S. Air Force, the Air Force Space Command was reorganized under the National Defense Authorization Act this past December as an independent branch of the military dramatically dubbed the "United States Space Force." Now the eighth branch of our uniformed services, the U.S.S.F. is charged with training and equipping forces "to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force."

This July 22 the Space Force introduced its logo and new motto, Semper Supra, "Always Above." Whoever came up with the motto deserves an "A" from her (or his) old Latin teacher, and maybe a promotion in rank. The phrase suggests an organization that will be SEMPiternal, i.e. enduring and ETERNal (Lat. aeternum), and SUPERdominant, towering OVER all foes (OVER and Lat. super/supra are "cognates," derived from the same prehistoric source as Greek hyper, as in HYPERactive/HYPERtension, and German über, as in the UBER ride-sharing company whose founders meant it to rise "above" all other driving services). The phrase has a nice ring to it as well, with its lilting S-P-R/SemPeR SuPRa alliteration. Hmm, maybe an "A+"!

The use of Latin military mottoes follows a time-honored tradition. As we surely want our military forever at our defense, the Semper Supra U.S.S.F. joins the U.S. Marine Corps, who are Semper Fidelis, "Semper Fi" for short, "Always Loyal" (as in FIDelity and your trusty pup FIDo), the U.S. Coast Guard, who are of course "Always PrePARed," Semper Paratus (think prePARATions), and the U.S. Navy, who are Semper Fortis, "Always Courageous" (as in FORTitude/FORTify/FORce).

The Navy also has an unofficial motto, Non sibi sed patriae (PATRIot is from a related ancient Greek word), "Not for self but for country." And not to be out-classed, the U.S. Public Health Service adopted a new motto in 2019, "In the Service of Health," In Officio Salutis (public OFFICIals are duty-bound to serve the people, and a SALUTary experience is a healthy, beneficial one). The U.S. Army settled for English "This We’ll Defend," alas, which they could readily have translated to

The use of Latin mottoes for the armed forces goes back to ancient Rome of course. Gloria Exercitus, "Glory of the Army," appeared on thousands of coins as a military slogan, and individual legions had their own honorifics like Ferrata/Ironclad (think of our chemical symbol Fe), Certa Constans/CERTain and CONSTANT, Victrix/VICTORious, and Fulminata/Thunderbolt (source of our word FULMINATe).

During my four decades of teaching Latin at the University of Georgia, I often shared with my students a playful Latin phrase I’d pilfered from some colleague. It occurs to me now that if the U.S. ever establishes a Department of Sanitation and Personal Hygiene, it might just make the ideal motto: Semper Ubi Sub Ubi. The word semper we’ve discussed; ubi means "where," as things UBIquitous (like Latin!) are found everywhere; and you likely know sub, as in SUBmarine (under the sea) and SUBterranean (under ground). The perfect tenet for cleanliness and avoiding rash, Semper Ubi Sub Ubi: now, you’ll have to work out that translation on your own!

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.