A motto (derived from the Latin muttum, 'mutter', by way of Italian motto, 'word', 'sentence') is a maxim; a phrase meant to formally summarize the general motivation or intention of an individual, family, social group or organization. Mottos are usually not expressed verbally,[clarification needed] unlike slogans, but are expressed in writing and usually stem from long traditions of social foundations, or also from significant events, such as a civil war or a revolution. A motto may be in any language, but Latin has been widely used, especially in the Western world.
In heraldry, a motto is often found below the shield in a banderole; this placement stems from the Middle Ages, in which the vast majority of nobles possessed a coat of arms and a motto. In the case of Scottish heraldry it is mandated to appear above the crest. Spanish coats of arms may display a motto in the bordure of the shield. In heraldic literature, the terms "rallying cry" respectively "battle banner" are also common, which date back to the battle cry, and is usually located above the coat of arms.
In English heraldry mottos are not granted with armorial bearings, and may be adopted and changed at will. In Scottish heraldry, mottos can only be changed by re-matriculation, with the Lord Lyon King of Arms. Although very unusual and perhaps outside standard heraldic practice, there are some examples of the particular appearance of the motto scroll and letters thereon being blazoned; a prominent example is the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States (which is a coat of arms and follows heraldic conventions), the blazon for which specifies that the motto scroll is held in the beak of the bald eagle serving as the escutcheon's supporter.
Latin has been very common for mottos, but for nation states their official language is generally chosen. Examples of unusual choices in motto language include:
A canting motto is one that contains word play. For example, the motto of the Earl of Onslow is Festina lente, punningly interpreting on-slow (literally "make haste slowly"). Similarly, the motto of the Burgh of Tayport: Te oportet alte ferri – "It is incumbent on you to carry yourself high" – is actually a rather terrible cant on: Tayport at auld Tay Ferry, also alluding to the local lighthouse.
In literature, a motto is a sentence, phrase, poem, or word prefixed to an essay, chapter, novel, or the like suggestive of its subject matter. It is a short, suggestive expression of a guiding principle for the written material that follows.
Mottos are not necessarily hereditary and can be adopted and changed at will.
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