College Mottos

TIM SQUIRRELL deciphers some of Cambridge’s most poignant college mottos.

cambridge mottos college mottos Dieu me garde de calomnie homerton motto Respice Finem sidney sussex motto Souvent me Souvient st john's motto

The mottos used by corporations and institutions are often ambiguous, ironic or outright unfortunate.

On the face of it, Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ sounds like an advocacy for impulsivity and unnecessary risk-taking, which is just plain irresponsible. ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ is clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek; ‘Have It Your Way’ smacks of the bitter resolve of a psycho ex-partner who’s just systematically kidnapped and flayed every single one of your pets; and ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ is so horrifically suggestive that nothing I could say could possibly make it any funnier than it already is.

The mottos of Cambridge colleges, however, are different. There’s something special about them, something refined. The way they reflect the legacy and ethos of this eight-hundred year old institution is profound, sentimental. Though their absolute ubiquity means they are well-known to every single student, I feel compelled to commemorate them somehow, to maybe add my own insignificant, whimsical musings on their deeper meanings. Each and every one of them makes Shakespeare’s sonnets sound like the ramblings of a five-year old dosed out of their face on codeine, but let’s just take a look at a select few of my all-time favourite college mottos.

Homerton: Respice finem (‘Look to the end’)

Homerton, dead ahead

This motto has a very practical purpose. It is an admonishment to lax Homertonians who, on the way home from a long day of lectures, may not be keeping their eyes on the road. Advising them to quite literally look towards the end of the world, the edge of the Cambridge bubble where Homerton is located, these words of wisdom have been handed down from generation to generation of students. A little known fact is that nothing is ever written down in Homerton: as it evolved separately from the rest of Cambridge, they are still very much reliant on an oral cultural tradition. As such, the college’s motto is traditionally memorised by Homertonian freshers on their first night in Cambridge in a huge celebration, involving a bonfire, fireworks and, it is rumoured, the burning of effigies of a student who once dared to write down the college’s motto lest he forget the words. Such actions are considered blasphemy in Homerton, and the punishment for them is death – or worse, being sent down.

St John’s: Souvent me souvient (‘I often remember’)

A celebration of the more senior fellows of this erstwhile and well-loved college, this motto has two meanings. On a superficial level, it is probably the most commonly uttered phrase of the older college staff, as they launch into an endearingly addled yet charming tirade on the virtues of 1950s moral standards and the pre-welfare state. This is followed up by sage remarks on the dangers of progressive liberal values, and the real threat posed to society by gay marriage and the Oxford comma. On a deeper level, however, one can see the real relevance of this phrase to everyday student life – ‘I often remember’ is a beautifully emotionally charged, ironic reminder that for many of the students at St John’s college, their chief activity in the search for enjoyment is one which they are likely to forget the next day in a haze of vodka-flavoured breath and soiled clothes. How bitterly ironic that our most pleasant memories are often ones which do not exist at all. This is one of the most poignant of the college mottos.

Sidney Sussex: Dieu me garde de calomnie (‘God preserve me from calumny’)

Say whaaaat?

Given that it is a compulsory requirement for all Cambridge students to have fluency in Latin, I hardly feel it necessary to define the word ‘calumny’ for the majority of my readership. However, for those reading this who may be from, how shall I put it, more proletarian backgrounds than ours, ‘calumny’ simply means a statement that is slanderous or false. The motto of Sidney Sussex college is a prayer, a wish that every student expresses the morning after the night before when their compatriots come round to share anecdotes of drunken revelry. This is particularly common in Sidney Sussex due to the unfeasibly reasonable prices in their bar. When they cannot remember their actions, they accept that they did whatever their friends tell them they did and pray that they are not being misled. Rumours that this motto came about as a result of a shadowy racket of students who banded together for the sole purpose of convincing others in the college that they had spent their unremembered previous nights in a hedonistic orgy involving the performance of unmentionable acts on goats are entirely unfounded.