No longer manly, state seal uses gentle words

Research produces revision of motto

January 12, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

With one swift deed and several strategically placed words, Maryland's official archivist has quietly revised the English translation of an ancient Italian motto that is an integral part of the state seal.

"Strong deeds, gentle words" is the new translation.

It replaces "manly deeds, womanly words," its predecessor, which had appeared in the online version of the Maryland Manual until it was replaced without ceremony yesterday afternoon.

For centuries, lawmakers and linguists have quarreled over the meaning of the Tuscan "Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine," which appears prominently in the Great Seal, the state's symbol of authority dating from the 17th century.

The revised manual makes a fleeting reference to the former translation. It says that the slogan was "loosely translated `manly deeds, womanly words,' but [is] more accurately translated as `strong words, gentle deeds.'"

Maryland Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said the change resulted from historical research, not political pressure. The motto belonged to the Calvert family, and Papenfuse said he tried as best he could to divine the intent of Maryland's founding family in adopting it.

"This is a scholarly debate, not a contemporary whim," Papenfuse said during an interview. "We strive to do things that are accurate."

`Blatantly sexist'

Among the slogan's critics was New York Times language maven William Safire, who wrote in 1993 that "because deeds are always considered better than mere words, the motto is blatantly sexist, recalling the book of a century ago, `Great Men and Famous Women.'"

Safire, who was unavailable for comment yesterday, suggested in his column that Maryland, his home state, should tinker with the motto. But he didn't propose changing the English translation, an idea he sarcastically described as "a whole new way to treat discomfiting foreign words and phrases: Leave the original, just change the translation."

Loose translation in 1975

The first hint of the change was seen at the newly constructed Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. Senate Building in Annapolis, which was dedicated Tuesday. Adorning the floor of the building's main hall is a multicolored marble mosaic of the seal, which dates from the founding of the colony in 1634.

The Tuscan slogan appears in bold black letters against a gold background. A nearby interpretative plaque explains that the phrase is "properly translated as `strong deeds, gentle words.'"

During the afternoon, several passersby stooped to examine the mosaic and plaque. But none knew that the slogan's meaning had been revised.

Sylvia Hinson, a nurse at the state capitol complex, seemed embarrassed when asked whether she knew the English translation. "No. It's Latin, isn't it?" she asked. Another motto - translated as "With favor wilt thou compass us as with a shield" - does appear in Latin around the seal's border.

The translation of the Italian slogan has been the subject of periodic debate in the General Assembly for years. In 1969, the Maryland archivist offered the translation "Deeds are manly, words are womanly" that was briefly written into law. According to Papenfuse, the legislature moderated the "sexist implications" in 1975 by endorsing a "loose" translation of "manly deeds, womanly words."

In search of a motto

The matter wasn't generating much attention from legislators yesterday, the second day of the new session.

Vicky Fretwell, an aide to Senate President Miller, said, "I'm not aware this has been a controversy for him."

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, who has followed the translation debate over the years, said she hadn't heard about yesterday's change but was not alarmed. Hixson said that although historians might continue to quibble over the motto's true meaning, she believes that Papenfuse went "the extra mile" in his research.

Papenfuse said his translation is based on scholarly knowledge of George Calvert, who chose the motto in 1622. Calvert, he said, provided education for his daughters and incorporated elements of his wife's family shield in his own. That latter act, Papenfuse wrote in a Sun op-ed piece in 1993, reinforced "the idea that women in the Calvert household played more than a passive role in shaping the destiny of the family, and, for that matter, the colony of Maryland."

Translation aside, Hixson said the real issue is that the state continues to lack an official motto. The Italian words are merely a borrowed Calvert motto that happens to appear in the seal, but is not the state motto .

"What we would like to see is a new motto," she said.

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