Perhaps the most familiar coin mottoes to most US citizens would be “Liberty”, “E Pluribus Unum” and “In God We Trust”. The use of Liberty on US coins was mandated by the original Mint Act of 1792. To my knowledge it has appeared on every US coin since, with the recent exception of the new presidential dollars, where it is symbolically represented by the Statue of Liberty.
E Pluribus Unum translates from the Latin as “One out of many”. It first appeared on the Great Seal of the United States of America created in 1782. Its first appearance on a constitutionally approved US coin was the 1795 Capped Bust Heraldic Eagle gold five dollar half eagle. In 1798 it appeared on some silver coinage and soon became present on all coinage. There were some instances where the motto was dropped but it became law for inclusion on all US coinage by the Act of Feb 12, 1873.
The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on the two cent coin in 1864. The next year an act of congress allowed for the placement of the new motto on all US coins, however it was not mandatory. It was not until another act of congress in 1908 that In God We Trust was ordered restored to all coins on which it had previously appeared. This would include all coins with the exception of the one cent and five cent pieces. These two coins would bear the motto in 1909 and 1938 respectively. All US coins have since borne the motto. In God We Trust is also the National Motto of the United States.
The introduction of the state quarter designs in 1999 opened the door to a significant number of new mottos on US coins. Eight states chose to include their official state mottoes in their quarter’s reverse design. New Hampshire’s beloved motto “Live Free or Die” is immortalized beside the rock face of the fallen old man of the mountain. Hawaii’s motto is especially unique because it appears in the native Hawaiian language “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina I ka pono" meaning "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”. Other states chose to include unofficial mottoes such as Massachusetts’ “The Bay State”.
There are few published works cataloguing world coin mottoes. The most extensive collection of coin mottoes available today is Stuart Mosher’s “Coin Mottoes and their Translations”. This 1948 pamphlet is an alphabetical listing of all mottoes the author was able to find along with an English translation of each. The majority of the mottoes are in Latin, but there are a few in other languages such as French, German and Spanish. There are no English mottoes listed. When I purchased this pamphlet I was amazed at the number of mottoes included. I was however disappointed that there was no indication of which coins the mottoes came from. Perhaps the enormity of that task troubled the author.
The majority of the mottoes are religious in nature. A good example is the phrase “Dei Gratia” translated “By the grace of God” which is appended to just about every British Monarch’s title on the obverse of their coins. Sometimes the motto is simply abbreviated D:G:. The first of the reintroduced British Sovereigns coined in1817 had the lengthy Latin legend “GEORGIUS III D:G: BRITANNIAR: REX F:D: “ (Dei Gratia Britaniarum Rex Fidei Defensor) which translates as “George III By the Grace of God King of the Britains, Defender of the Faith”. On the reverse of the sovereign encircling the famous Pistrucci engraving of Saint George slaying the dragon is the motto in French “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE” – “Evil be to him who evil thinks”. This motto also appears on the United Kingdom Royal Coat of Arms.
A quick look at the Euros shows that most European nations have chosen to forgo using mottoes and even words in general on their national coinage. Here are a few of the nations that have struck with tradition (no that’s not a typo). The French €2 and €1 coins display their National Motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” translating as “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”. The Solvenian €1 displays their national motto "Stati Inu Obstati" (To Exist and Persevere). On their €2 appears the first line of the 7th stanza of their national anthem Zdravljica “Živé naj vsi naródi” (Live, oh live all nations). And last the 2005 Vatican City euros all announce the papal vacancy with the inscription “Sede Vacante MMV” (The Holy See Vacant 2005). Beneath the arms of Eduardo Cardinal Martinez Somalò is the motto “Caritas Et Veritas (Compassionate Love and Truth). Let this be the motto of Numismatists, “Posside Sapientiam” (Get Wisdom!).