Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2015

Fluctuat nec Mergitur

Now, class. It’s not every day that we get to apply our study of extinct languages to contemporary events, but we have that opportunity right now.

Recent events in Paris have called attention to a Latin phrase that appears on the coat of arms of the city of Paris, and is also associated with the Paris Fire Brigade:


Can anyone tell me the meaning of “Fluctuat nec mergitur?”

In the second row? Tres bon. Oui, the French translate this city motto as “Elle est agitée par les vagues, et ne sombre pas.”

In English that’s something like “She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink,” or, closer to our blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxon roots, perhaps “Battered, but never sunk.”

It’s a fitting sentiment to represent the resolve of people everywhere to resist the tyranny of terror, and certainly Parisiens in this time of trial.

It also illustrates the extreme economy of a highly inflected language such as Latin, which provides a lot of information in the noun and verb forms, without the use of pronouns, articles and verb phrases such as “Does not sink.” We’ll look more closely at noun inflections in our very next lesson.

Your assignment for that class is lines 2961 and 2962 of Beowulf. Please come with your translations ready.

A tip of the UWS beret to faithful reader, La Boheme, for suggesting this subject. More about the motto of Paris is at Wikipedia.

© 2015 Brad Nixon



  1. Long live the enchanting and unsinkable Ville Lumière!


  2. “There Ongentheow was, with the edge of the sword,
    The gray-haired one, forced to remain,”

    I am speculating that you may be making a comparison between the horrific battles in Beowulf and present day terrorism, and more specifically the recent shocking slaughters of civilians in Paris. However, I leave analysis and understanding of Beowulf to literary scholars, such as those in UWS, as this is way beyond my pay grade.

    Americans will no doubt recognize the motto “Live Free or Die,” some probably believing that it originated in the Colonies during the American Revolution, or prior thereto. In fact, I believe that this motto actually came out of the FRENCH Revolution (Antoine Barnave), “Vivre Libre ou Mourir.” As we’re on the subject of translations, I’m good with either source. This sentiment works for me.


  3. As a Harvard undergrad I recall the verses in the popular fight song which went, “Illegitmum non carborundum…”.Don’t let the bastards wear you down is a close enough translation for Harvard, As a grad student at Columbia I can’t recall time for anything except Economics.
    The former Speaker of the House from your old neck of the woods used to keep a plaque on his desk with this motto prominently displayed.
    I was last in Paris in 1979 where I sat at an outside cafe on the Champs Elysees as my father wished to do at the end of the war. He was with Patton and spent the war in Germany where I also grew up as an army brat. He often spoke of never getting to Paris so my trip was to set up a glass for absent friends and have that glass of wine with him.
    If the German army couldn’t destroy France, Paris, the French and their allies ISIS must fail. However, this is going to take as determined of an amount of force and resolve as the past wars with their more easily identifiable enemies and targets.
    I’m afraid that they are close to using cluster bombs and BLU96 Thermobaric weapons. That will occur before France ever goes nuclear as a last resort. We had better discuss this publicly because ISIS has scared the masses and we don’t need an “accidental” nuclear response.


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