#include virtual="/html/macros/1999/news.top.html" start-take #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show But what does it mean? #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show Among other translations, the UW's motto has been read as 'Let there be a lamp in here.' #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show photo start JOE NICHOLSON/The Daily The UW's motto, "Lux Sit," is emblazoned on the exterior of Savery Hall. Classics professors disagree on the exact translation of the motto, but the gist is assumed to be "let there be light." photo end Venice Buhain #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show The Daily #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show
Like many other schools, the UW has a grand-sounding Latin motto: Lux sit. It graces the school seal and inspires students to reach ever-higher summits of personal achievement.
Or maybe not.
One problem with Latin mottos is that these days, few people know what they mean. And when it comes to the UW's motto, even the experts can't agree on its meaning - several calls to the classics department proved that there is much divergent opinion as to what Lux sit really means. Although Latin is called a dead language, the controversy over what Lux sit could mean is very much alive.
The UW's motto is most commonly translated as, "Let there be light." But these translators probably do not know Latin well, as Lux sit is an imperfect translation of that grand imperative.
It is maddeningly hard to track down the source of the UW's motto, but in the past, it has been attributed to the first president of the UW, Asa Mercer, and it appears on very early examples of the school seal. The story goes that Mercer was no Latin scholar, but for some reason, at a time when Greek and Latin were required subjects at the University, no one corrected Mercer's awkward motto.
"There is a controversy about the saying Lux sit," said Alain Gowing, assistant professor of classics. First of all, "It's extremely bad Latin. Most people with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin would see that it is bad Latin."
However, despite the bad grammar, Gowing says that the saying could still mean a number of things to a Latin speaker.
"A Roman looking at that would think, 'Let there be a lamp in here,'" Gowing said, demonstrating the ambiguity of the phrase.
Other translations appearing in print in the past have been "There is a light here" or "There is light. So what?"
Paul Pascal, professor emeritus of classics, conceded the motto must have been intended to mean, "Let there be light."
"But a better way to say it is the standard wording of the Vulgate (the Latin Bible) - Fiat lux.."
Pascal gives two reasons why Fiat lux is a better translation. "First of all, we translate either sit or fiat as 'be' in English, but they don't really mean the same thing. Sit means simply 'let it exist,' with no reference to its creation or to its ever having not existed. Fiat means 'let it come into being, let it make the transition from not being to being.'"
The second reason that Pascal gives is dramatic flair. "The order of a verb and its subject can go either way in Latin. The sequence chosen in the Vulgate introduces an element of suspense into God's first reported words."
In other words, "Let there be light" is more powerful because it heightens the suspense about what, exactly, is coming into being. The UW version, "Light - let it exist," spills its drama all at once.
But if the UW wanted to change its motto to the more accurate Fiat lux, it could be accused of copying the University of California at Berkeley, which has used the motto for more than a century.
Besides, since no one knows why the phrase Lux sit was selected, it's possible it was intended to mean something other than "Let there be light." Pascal says that the UW version of the motto could mean something like, "Now that light exists, let it continue to exist."
Which is something that UW students can live up to, right? #hide#show http_user_agent="Lynx"#show Previous article Next article Copyright©1999 The Daily University of Washington #include virtual="/html/macros/1999/news.bottom.html"
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