We Evertonians are an educated lot. All of us know at least one bit of Latin: Nil Satis Nisi Optimum; moreover we can translate it – Only the best is good enough. It is the part of Everton’s badge which reminds us of the high standards that we all expect. But how come a modern football club on Merseyside has a motto in a foreign language that originated with an Iron Age tribe in what is now central Italy, and which hasn’t been spoken as a native tongue for 1,500 years? What’s more the motto is not an isolated case; you all know and use lots more Latin words and phrases in everyday speech, possibly without realising. It has been estimated that 60% of the words found in the vocabulary of English have a Latin root, although most of them come to us via mediaeval French. However the most commonly used words and the grammar used to order and structure them owe more to our Germanic Anglo-Saxon forbears who probably founded the village of Everton in the first place.
Many of the words of Latin origin have changed meaning over 2,000 years and they are often not found in the classical language that was taught as a central part of the educational curriculum until quite recently. Take the classical Latin for horse; equus, from it we derive the English words equine and equestrian. There was a slang or popular word for horse in the late Roman Empire – caballus and from this developed the French word cheval, the Italian cavallo and the Spanish caballo. From these would develop the words for horseman and eventually knight with the French chevalier coming into English as cavalier. Prince Rupert was the archetypal dashing cavalier and the word came to mean a disdain for matters of importance, as in “Roberto Martinez took a cavalier attitude to defending…..”
Mention of Prince Rupert leads me to an apology (a Greek word that came into English meaning an argument in defence of something), or maybe I should be penitent or contrite (both from Latin). Those of you who read the first part of Kissing the Badge may remember that I hinted that the next instalment would be about Prince Rupert and the tower. It’s taking a bit longer than I thought due to the subject being fascinating, and my inability to summarise anything. In Latin (and English) you can say prolix- longwinded or wordy and it is mea culpa - my fault. This is the origin of the word culpable in English, a legal term defining the proportion of any blame. In this case it’s 100% my fault, but Prince Rupert’s story will have piracy and buried treasure, so I hope it will be worth the wait.
I have another confession to make (another example of a Latin word, confessio, that came via the French); I’m not good on linguistics. I wasn’t taught English grammar let alone the Latin rules at my school as the emphasis was on preparing us to work with our hands. I do know a joke about grammar: ‘the past, present and future walk into a bar – it was tense’, but that’s about it (and no, I don’t think it’s very funny either). The word joke incidentally has a Latin origin - iocus and interestingly had much the same meaning. Where grammar is concerned I don’t know my accusatives from my pejoratives or my first person singular from my third person plural, I wouldn’t recognise a gerund if it bit me, and if you asked me to conjugate an English verb I’d struggle. Conjugation lists the way a verb changes to convey different meanings, mainly through changing its word endings, which is called inflexion. English is a mildly inflected language but Latin is heavily inflected and the word endings are many and complex. If you want to get a sense of this think of the scene in ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ where Brian Cohen is trying to impress the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean Peoples Front?). He tries to paint “Romans go home” in Latin on the walls of the forum, but what he actually writes is “People called Romanes, they go, the house”. A passing centurion gives him a lesson in Latin grammar at sword point; and Romanes eunt domus becomes Romani ite domum.
But I digress (from another Latin word, this time coming from late mediaeval Latin). The central Italian Iron Age tribe mentioned what seems like ages ago were called the Latini and their territory, Latium was the area around what is now Rome. Latium was roughly the modern Italian region of Lazio, which gives its name to one of the two modern football teams in the city. The Latini would expand to conquer first Italy, then the Mediterranean, becoming known as the Romans from the name of their capital. At its peak the Roman Empire would stretch from the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the Persian Gulf and from southern Egypt to southern Scotland. Across this vast area the language of the Latini was the official tongue, and when the Empire collapsed in the 5th century various strands of it formed the basis of what are called the Romance group of languages which includes French, Italian, and Spanish. Latin itself survived as the language of the Western church and became the international language of communication through the Dark and Middle Ages, as the church had a near monopoly on the written word. The first example of the name Everton, as Evretona appears in a Latin sentence written in 1094.
The offical use of Latin in the English church came to an abrupt end in the mid-16th century as the Protestant Reformation enshrined English as the language of worship. However in parallel to this, the rediscovery of the art, architecture and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, which began in Italy in the 14th century, became increasingly influential. The Renaissance as we now call it rejected mediaeval Latin and took as its inspiration the classical language, using the examples provided by the great orators, writers and poets of the Roman Empire. Study of them formed the basis of a classical education which became the norm for gentlemen in England. It also created a linguistic snobbery as those who ‘had’ Latin looked down on those who didn’t; the first work on English grammar which dates from this period was even written in Latin. William Shakespeare’s university educated rivals looked down on him partly because he was not fluent; even his friend Ben Jonson couldn’t help mentioning it in his tribute after Shakespeare’s death, saying he had “little Latin and less Greek,” but was pretty good despite this failing.
Ben Jonson and his badly educated mate (Wikipedia)
The great works of science and philosophy would be distributed in Latin, by men who often used Latin forms for their names. When a Polish mathematician, Mikołaj Kopernik published his theory that the earth orbited the sun in 1543 he wrote in Latin and we know him today by the Latin version of his name: Nicolaus Copernicus. Galileo Galilei would prove Copernicus’ theories correct when he observed the moons of Jupiter in 1610 and published it in a Latin pamphlet Sidereus Nuncius – Starry Message. In 1687 when the English mathematician Issac Newton explained what Galileo had observed through his theories of gravity his title was Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and again the text was Latin. Thirty eight years after Newton’s Principia when the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linne published his binomial system to classify all living things he also used Latin, which is why we are homo sapiens and not the English translation; wise or intelligent man (well most of us anyway). Von Linne is also known by his Latin name, Carolus Linnaeus.
The Frenchman René Descartes was another intellectual giant of 17th century learning who lived much of his working life in the Netherlands before dying in Sweden. Aside from being a soldier, mathematician and scientist he was also a philosopher, and so wide ranging were his discoveries that they are described as Cartesian, from the Latin version of his name – Renatus Cartesius. His proposition I think, therefore I am is still one of philosophy’s fundamental concepts. The original French version is je pense, donc je suis but it would be translated into Latin for a wider audience and would become cogito, ergo sum. French and English require five words to describe the concept, Latin just three. It’s what makes Latin good for mottos.
Cartesian - Newtonian – Linnaean (Wikipedia)
During the 18th century Latin was gradually replaced by French as the language of international diplomacy, possibly because Britain and various European allies were at war with France for a large part of the 100 years. However the phrase status quo ante bellum – ‘the state that existed before the war’ - would be used in peace treaties to return the borders back to the situation before a particular outbreak. From this we get status quo and eventually the well known Latin rock band. You also come across the word antebellum in US English to describe things which relate to the period before the American Civil War. The opposite situation was uti possidetis which meant whoever occupied territory at the end of the war kept it. During the wars of the 18th century the European boundaries of some states moved but the big winners were the British who gained a global empire which they self-consciously compared with that of the Romans, which may explain at least in part the hold that Latin had over education in the UK well into the 20th century.
Another factor was the habit of English gentlemen to round off their education during the 17th and 18th centuries with what became known as the Grand Tour. This involved them seeking cultural and other stimulation around the classical sites mostly in Italy. They returned with crates full of objet d’art which today adorn the great classically inspired stately homes of this country. It all added to the sense of good taste that had a knowledge of Latin at its heart. And it wasn’t just stately homes; stand at the bottom of William Brown Street and look up; you might be in ancient Rome. The English class system had its share of classical Latin; the word vulgar comes from the Latin vulgaris and originally meant of the people. Similarly the standard Latin bible, largely translated by St Jerome was called the vulgate - biblia vulgate, and it was the regional versions of vulgar Latin that were the root of the Romance languages as we have seen with the whole equus/cabalus/horst thing. Vulgar would come to mean lacking in taste and refinement, and the phrase infra dig, a shortening of the Latin infra dignitatem - beneath one’s dignity - would be used for actions which were deemed vulgar. A related classical reference, hoi poloi would be used to describe the lower orders of society, it is a corruption of the classical Greek phrase meaning the many or the people but again gained a negative connotation like vulgar. The Latin word plebs is much the same and is used as a term of abuse to this day.
Grand Tourists visiting the glory that was Rome – The Pantheon in Rome in the 18th Century painted by Giovanni Paulo Panini – or is it the Picton Reading Room on William Brown St? (Wikipedia)
Latin was part of the school curriculum (another Latin word) well into the late 20th century and it would be the cornerstone of teaching at Oxford and Cambridge in particular. Oxford only dropped the requirement for a basic knowledge of Latin in the 70’s, and Cambridge graduates can still use the word Cantab to denote their alma mater. It comes from Cantabrigia, the mediaeval Latin name for the city. That Latin was part of the Oxbridge fabric is unsuprising given that it had been taught for nearly a millenium (Latin again), but there is also more than a suspicion that it was part of the elitism of both universities. Latin was part of the process by which they selected the right chaps from the right schools - allegedly (a word that comes from Latin via French again).
You also sense that Latin academics looked down on English as a language because of its quirky grammar and mongrel vocabulary, derived from the Germanic, Scandinavian and French languages over the centuries. English has been described as consistently inconsistent, unlike Latin which has rigid rules and a pure, pared down vocabulary. You can hear echoes of this snobbery when grammarians complain about things like the illogical word order in English. It qualifies something before it says what it is, so we have a tricky winger not a winger tricky; you wouldn’t get away with that in Latin. And if you split the infinitive, as the introduction to the original TV series of Star Trek did with James T Kirk saying they would boldly go rather than go boldly, traditional gramarians have kittens. They don’t literally give birth to young cats, it is an example of idiom, English does that a lot too.
But I’m going off at a tangent again (Latin again - tangentem - from 16th century mathematics). What I’m trying to show, ad nauseam, is that Latin was a part of the way people thought about language until very recently. So when the Everton directors met between Christmas and New Year 1937 and discussed creating a club crest for following year’s Chrismas cards Latin would have been part of their thinking. The minutes do not record what was said, and at the board meeting on 8th March 1938 the issue was deferred (from Latin via Old French – deferre) to the agenda for the following week. At that meeting -‘It was agreed that the Secy. make arrangements to have the New Crest Incorporated where required, at the conclusion of this Season’. The new crest included the Latin motto.
The original crest design (Everton Football Club)
But if the minutes narrow down when the design was decided on, they do not give any clue as to why the elements, and in particular the motto were chosen. It may be that other clubs’ mottos were an influence, with several being in Latin. Blackburn Rovers have Arte et Labore – which translates as something like skill and labour, or maybe effort. Tottenham have Audere est Facere – to dare is to do, and Manchester City Superbia in proelia – pride in battle. Interestingly both Spurs and City have dropped the Latin mottoes in recent crest redesigns. My personal favourite is Gillingham - Domus clamantium, the Latin for "the home of the shouting men”. However it is not easy to establish if these predate Everton’s; Blackburn’s certainly doesn’t, dating from the late 50’s, and like Gillingham’s motto was derived from the arms of the town.
My guess is that the directors chose a Latin motto because they were all probably taught Latin at school and had absorbed its linguistic influence, consciously or unconsciously, but mostly because with limited space on the scroll beneath the crest, they could convey their meaning in just four words, a nice even number. What meaning Nil Satis Nisi Optimum was meant to convey is a matter for specularis, sorry speculation. That Everton should seek to be the optimum or best is obvious, and the following season, 1938-39 Everton were the best, winning the last Championship before WW2.
The sense that the motto appeared to have been changed to ‘finishing only just above the relegation places is good enough’ under Sam Alardyce (allegedly) explains a lot about the hostility he generated.
But I think the meaning of the motto runs deeper, to how the optimum should be achieved. It is the sense of how football should be played and the type of player Everton should sign, of the School of Football Science and Everton, the team that play beautiful football. The man who presided over the discussion of the crest was William Cuff, in his final year as chairman, whose involvement with the club went back to his attendance at St Domingo Methodist chapel as a boy when the football team was founded. Although he never played for the club he filled almost every other position in the club’s hirerarchy (hierarchia - from Greek via mediaeval Latin and French). He laid out his and the club’s guiding philosophy thus:
The great William Cuff – Latin scholar - possibly (Wikipedia)
“Throughout its history Everton has been noted for the high quality of its football. It has always been an unwritten but rigid policy of the board, handed down from one generation of directors to another, that only the classical and stylish type of player should be signed. The kick-and-rush type has never appealed to them.”
If you were to summarise that statement you might come up with ‘Only the best is good enough’. And if you wanted to reduce it to just four words then Latin is the best tool for the job: Nil Satis Nisi Optimum. It is elegant, classical and has class (all words which have Latin roots, you will be unsurprised to learn). It has become iconic, another Latin word, although it was borrowed by the Romans, like so much else from the Greeks. We even reduce it to a mnemonic - again Latin from the Greek - to NSNO.
But whichever way you put it, Evertonians, educated lot that we are, understand.
Pete Jones (Copyright 2019)
Everton are some way from being the optimum on the pitch at the moment, but one area where they are the best is through the work of Everton in the Community and the Everton Former Players Foundation. Henry Mooney is a big man who plays a big part in both. Having seen what he does at close hand over the last few years I think he does more good in a morning than most people do in a month, and politicians and bankers do in a career. Henry is hanging his metaphorical boots up this year, so this article is dedicated to him; he is the optimum, and can be well satis when he looks back on all he has achieved. Have a happy retirement Henry.
Acknowledgements (from the Anglo-Saxon, no Latin influence)