University of Alberta's motto: "whatever"

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The University of Alberta, hosting the AACL 2009 conference where I'm spending a couple of days, has recently moved up in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking, from 133rd in 2006, 97th in 2007, and 74th 2008, to 59th in 2009.  (I believe that it comes out 4th in Canada, after McGill, Toronto, and UBC.) It's hard to make that kind of move — the responsible faculty and administrators should be congratulated.

And when I saw it for the first time yesterday, I thought that the motto on the University's seal expressed just the right attitude: quaecumque vera, or after translation from the Latin, "whatever". Well, I suppose literally it means "whatever [things are] true", but the "true" part is redundant, right? I mean, when you say "OK, whatever", isn't what you mean "OK, whatever is true, I'm fine with it"?

More seriously, the university senate's web site explains that

The University Motto, Quaecumque vera, is taken from the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 4, Verse 8:

De cetero, fratres, quaecumque sunt vera,quaecumque pudica, quaecumque justa, quaecumque sancta, quaecumque amabilia, quaecumque bonae famae, si qua virtus, si qua laus disciplinae, haec cogitate.

The same passage from the King James version is: Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and there be any praise, think on these things.

Right; whatever. Or to avoid using what is allegedly the most annoying phrase in English, quaecumque vera.


  1. Pessimist said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    Well, normally, the King James version sounds more decent than normal English; in this quote, the boredom and verbosity of current English is already apparent compared to the levity and brevity of Latin.

  2. Acilius said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    Too bad their motto isn't "quaecumque amabilia." Anyone who could produce that tongue-twister smoothly would deserve an honors degree on the spot.

  3. Pessimist said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

    Somehow, this blog didn't like the Gothic passage – so, would you please delete the previous passage completely?


  4. MB said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    There's a great text in Galatians,
    Once you trip on it, entails
    Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
    One sure, if another fails.

    Browning, "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister" 1842

    It's been argued that Browning was really thinking of Deuteronomy 28:15-45, but the trochees weren' there.

  5. Jeremy said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    I thought that the general 'whatever' was 'quidquid' in latin.

  6. Chris said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    Also Northwestern's motto (though not omitting "sunt": "Quaecumque sunt vera").

  7. Acilius said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    "Quidquid" is an adverb of extent. So "quidquid vera, quidquid pudica, quidquid sancta… haec cogitate" would be something like "To whatever degree these things are true, to whatever degree they are chaste, to whatever degree they are consecrated… think on them." I suppose our slangy "whatever" may sometimes cover that meaning. But I think it can mean other things as well.

    [(myl) I've always taken the modern colloquial whatever, which the OED glosses as

    "Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker's reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.: ‘as you wish’; ‘if you say so’; ‘it makes no difference to me’; ‘have it your own way’; ‘fine’."

    to be a simple extension of the earlier meaning 'Whatever may be the case, at all events."

    And "quaecumque vera" is a decent translation for "whatever may be the case".]

  8. Craig Russell said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

    I don't think the sentiment behind "quaecumque vera" (as used in the bible verse and presumably in the motto) is at all like the sentiment behind our colloquial "whatever".

    The sentiment behind our "whatever" is a lack of attachment to or engagement with an idea. An example might be the following discussion:

    A: Do you want to see a movie tonight?
    B: Whatever.

    Here B's response indicates that he has neither a strong interest in seeing a movie nor a strong objection to it; he is totally disengaged with the entire question.

    But 'quaecumque vera' is almost exactly the opposite. The sentiment here is that your engagement with the truth (and justice, and purity, etc.) should so strong that you would be willing to seek it out in any form it might take.

    I suppose there is a degree of overlap in meaning: in both "whatever" and "quaecumque vera" there is a willingness to engage with a wide range of things. But in "whatever" that willingness is born of apathy, in "quaecumque vera" it's born of passion. Calling them the same would be like saying that Shakespeare's "To be or not to be" is an example of the colloquial expression "Or not."

    [(myl) Thank you for explaining the joke so clearly.]

  9. jk said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    Northwestern University's version is its motto: Quaecumque sunt vera. In the school's early years, those were the first words of the University Chant.

  10. Craig Russell said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:49 pm


    quidquid can be used as an adverb, but in general it's a pronoun (masc. quisquis, fem. quaequae, neut. quidquid) that does mean "whatever". Probably the most famous example in Latin literature is from Virgil's Aeneid, Bk 2, at the end of a long speech given by the Trojan priest Laocoon advising his fellow citizens against accepting the giant wooden horse the Greeks have left behind:

    quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

    Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they're bringing gifts.

    Here the 'quidquid id est' is dismissive (in somewhat the same way as our "whatever", I guess); it's saying "it's impossible to know what it (the Trojan horse) is, but it doesn't really matter, because…" I think 'quisquis/quidquid' often carries a bit of these sense. The poet Catullus begins his collection by dedicating it to a friend, and says:

    habe tibi quidquid hoc libelli

    Have for yourself whatever of a book this (may be). (i.e. "I'm not going to vouch for my book's quality, but it's dedicated to you nonetheless).

    I think there's some overlap between quisquis and quicumque (the masculine form of 'quaecumque' under which you'd list it in a dictionary), but I'd say the difference, when there is one, is that quicumque is less dismissive and more generalizing. For example Cicero says:

    quisque…ad suum commodum refert, quaecumque agit.

    Each man looks to his own benefit, whatever he's doing.

    Here the force is not dismissive so much as it is inclusive: in every single case where a man is doing something, he's doing it with an eye to his own benefit. And this is true in our "quaecumque vera" quote too: in every single case where something is true, you should keep that something in mind. (This is another reason why I don't think 'quaecumque vera' really means 'whatever' in the colloquial sense that Mark seems to be suggesting it does).

  11. Craig Russell said,

    October 9, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    Oh, wait, Mark… you were being sarcastic, weren't you? Wow, that flew right over my head. I feel like an idiot.

    Oh well. Whatever.

    [(myl) Well, the joke was not a very good one. Perhaps it isn't a joke at all. I was just struck by the contrast between the intended pragmatic force of the university's appropriation of St. Paul's quaecumque vera and the colloquial expression recently voted "most annoying", despite the apparent identity of literal reference.]

  12. Lee Dembart said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    “Whatever” standing alone can also have a dismissive tone that is very different from “quaecumque vera.” “Whatever” can have the sense of, “It doesn’t matter.”

    In the presidential debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama on Feb. 26, 2008, the question turned to the man who was about to be elected president of Russia, succeeding Vladimir Putin.

    The moderator, Tim Russert, asked Clinton, “Who will it be? Do you know his name?”

    Clinton stumbled over “Medvedev,” and said, “Med, uhm, Med-NED-vadah – whatever.”

  13. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    There's what you might call a synthesis of the sacred and secular in the Ben Folds Five album title Whatever and Ever Amen.

    Northwestern's motto is also interesting insofar as it forms the middle link of a trilingual seal, with English in the outer ring, the Latin in an inner ring, and Greek in the middle (written on the pages of an open book which is presumably intended to be the Bible). As reproduced on their website, it's at a scale that makes it nigh-impossible to read the Greek, perhaps because they don't assume any meaningful percentage of their target audience could do so, perhaps because the Biblical allusion in the Greek (arguing that the Word is full of grace as well as truth, thus suggesting those latter two qualities might be related) is a harder one to adapt to the modern secular university than the Latin one is.

  14. sleepnothavingness said,

    October 10, 2009 @ 2:45 pm

    "Whatever" – three more syllables than a yawn.

  15. Gary said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    "Oh, wait, Mark… you were being sarcastic, weren't you? Wow, that flew right over my head. I feel like an idiot."

    Not to feel too bad. I was working on a similar post until I saw your much superior contribution. The problem is that these days you can't rely on people, even on linguists, to understand Latin.

    Wait—maybe there's a second level of sarcasmt. Maybe myl was satirizing linguists who think they understand Latin but don't.

  16. Aviatrix said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    I went to a school with the motto "Faire sans dire." We translated it "Shut up and work."

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    i'd speculate that most people who've seen "quidquid" recently know it from "quidquid latine dictum sit altum videtur."

  18. Jon said,

    October 12, 2009 @ 5:27 am

    I went to a school with the motto "Rather use than fame". We used to delete a few letters to leave "Rather u than me".

  19. Joel Shaver said,

    October 15, 2009 @ 7:10 am

    The University of Washington's motto was "lux sit", which was supposed to be "let there be light". My beginning Latin tutor told us that the motto was more accurately rendered "there ought to be light", however, and that "fiat lux" would have been a better choice. I appreciate the implications of this story as a gentle ribbing of academic attitudes (there, I've explained my joke!), but can anyone shed more light on the subject?

  20. charles said,

    January 14, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    I think the use of "whatever" doesn't really capture the meaning in modern idiomatic English. It's probably closer to say, "that which is true". With the "sunt" I think you might even be able to stretch the translation to, "that which is, is true."

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