No four words have prompted more debate among Marylanders in the last century. Historians, legislators and women's groups have been arguing what our state motto is -- or should be -- since at least 1884.
Today, 49 of the 50 states have a motto. ''Manly Deeds, Womanly Words'' is hardly the most controversial. In New Hampshire, pacifist drivers have sued to remove ''Live Free or Die'' from their license tags. Presumably, atheists in Ohio feel the same way about their state's motto, ''With God, All Things are Possible.''
Oklahoma's motto, ''Laabur Omnia Vincit'' probably inspires that state's AFL-CIO, since it translates to ''Labor Conquers All Things.'' (In Maryland, to be accurate, we would need to amend the Oklahoma motto to say ''Laabur Vincit Saepius'' -- ''Labor Wins Most of the Time.'')
In Maryland, we have a state secret. And the secret is that Maryland does not have an official state motto. We've never had one in our 359 years. In 1988, the attorney general's office studied this issue and concluded that Maryland has never legally adopted a state motto, only a state seal, which bears the motto of the Calvert family, ''Fatti Maschii Parole Femine'' This is not Maryland's motto, and despite popular notions to the contrary, it never has been the state motto.
Maryland's official seal is recognized in Section 13-102 of the State Government Article. Actually, Maryland has had at least a dozen seals. The first arrived in Maryland with Leonard Calvert in 1634 and was used until 1644, when it mysteriously disappeared. Almost 100 years later, the Maryland Gazette reported that the seal ''was treacherously and violently taken away by Richard Ingle and hath ever since been so disposed of that it cannot be recovered.'' No trace of this first seal (or Richard Ingle) remains today.
The second seal is believed to have resembled the first seal. It was commissioned by Lord Baltimore and delivered to him by Captain William Stone in 1648, and was the model for the Great Seal of the State recognized today. The obverse of the seal depicts Lord Baltimore as a knight. The reverse depicts the Ploughman and Fisherman, holding a shield with the Calvert and Crossland family arms quartered.
The rim contains the phrase ''Scuto Bonae Voluntatis Tuae Coronasti Nos'' (''With favor wilt thou compass us as with a shield,'' the 12th verse of the Fifth Psalm from the Vulgate). Although the Vulgate phrase is far more visible, it has never been popularly considered a motto. No one has suggested putting the Fifth Psalm on our license plates.
The controversial ''Fatti Maschii Parole Femine'' language appears in much smaller typeface on the scroll beneath the Crossland and Calvert arms. This language is the Calvert family motto and appears on Calvert family coat of arms, which was selected by George Calvert in 1622. According to the state archivist, Lord Baltimore directed that his family motto appear on the seal when he commissioned the 1648 replacement.
After independence, the General Assembly decided to replace the old proprietary seal. The replacement, designed by Charles Willson Peale in 1794, featured olive branches, wheat, a scale of justice, a different motto: ''Industry the Means and Plenty the Result.'' This replacement seal was followed by the Great Seal of 1817, which featured an American Eagle and 13 stars.
In 1854, Governor E. Louis Lowe reported to the legislature that the 1817 seal was worn out and successfully urged the legislature to adopt a replica of the arms of the state, which included some, but not all of the original design elements of the Calvert seal. This seal contained a motto from an unofficial 1765 woodcut seal, ''Crescite et multiplicanini'' (''Grow and multiply''), motto that might disturb modern-day slow growth and family planning advocates.
The Great Seal of 1854 contained many errors, so in 1876, the General Assembly enacted Joint Resolution No. 5, authorizing a new great seal that would conform in great detail to the Great Seal of 1648.
Eight years later, the Great Seal of 1648 made a dramatic reappearance. In 1884, the Commissioner of Land Patents searched the Little Treasury Building on the State House lawn and found a vault which had been finished in 1747. When the vault was opened, the two halves of the Great Seal of 1648 were discovered. This relic is now on display in the restored Archives Room in the State House.
There are skeptics who doubt the seal discovered in 1884 was actually the original 17th-century instrument, but it is unquestioned that the original design of the Great Seal of 1648 contained the Calvert family seal with the words ''Fatti Maschii Parole Femine.'' But those words are the Calvert family's motto, not Maryland's motto.
If we don't have a state motto, then ''Cur Tanta Turba?'' (''What's all the fuss about?'')