Translating the Latin Motto of the University of Florida
The University of Florida’s Latin motto is “Civium in moribus rei publicae salus" to which the university offers the following official translation: “The welfare of the state depends upon the morals of its citizens." Let’s take a closer look at a Classical Latin literal translation of this motto.
“Civium" is the genitive plural form of the common (either masculine or feminine) noun “civis" which means “citizen" or sometimes “fellow citizen." Recall that the genitive case in Latin is the case of possession, often used to indicate to whom or to what something or someone belongs. As an i-stem noun, “civis" has an –ium ending in the genitive plural case rather than the expected “civum."
“In moribus" is a grammatical construction known as the ablative of place where. The ablative of place where is often coupled with the word “in" to indicate where something did, is, or will take place. “Moribus" is the ablative plural form of the word “mos" which means “habit" or “custom" but often switches its meaning to “character" in the plural. “In" is similar to English’s “in" but can also mean “on" depending on context.
“Rei Publicae" is a common Latin phrase from the feminine noun “res" meaning “thing" and the feminine noun “publica" which means “public." Together, the “res publica" was literally the “public thing" or “that which concerns the public." It can also be translated to mean “the state" and is clearly where English gets “republic." In its singular plural genitive form here, it is being used to show possession.
“Salus" is a feminine third-declension noun in the nominative case and means “health" or “safety" but it can also mean “a greeting" depending on context. As the only word in the nominative case, this word is likely the subject of the motto.
Taken together, an appropriate translation of “Civium in moribus rei publicae salus" according to proper Classical Latin grammar and lexicon is: “The safety of the citizens in the character of the state." This is a close translation to that offered by the University of Florida except for the missing verb “depends" and the missing pronoun “its."
It is clear that the university accepts a figurative rather than literal translation of its Latin motto into English. This is common practice and illustrates that Latin students must understand what is figuratively in the Latin before them rather than simply relying on literal translations as taught in so many elementary Latin programs. This is especially important for intermediate Latin programs where reading of actual ancient Latin texts becomes the focus.