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Unit Shirts: Getting Started | Gallery | Pricing | Contact Info The Meaning of Semper Fidelis: by Cam Beck
Marine praying in tribute to a fallen comrade with American flag backdrop or my family, Semper Fidelis is more than a fancy slogan. It is truly a way of life. My father retired from the Marine Corps in the 90s, after serving over twenty years and more than one tour of duty in a combat zone. Therefore, my two brothers and I grew up in a culture that demanded excellence and loyalty of its members, and it showed. It is partially for this reason, I am convinced, that we all joined the Marine Corps when we were of the appropriate age. Because of my upbringing, it is somewhat difficult to imagine what life would be like, had I not grown up surrounded by living, breathing personifications of "Semper Fidelis," and I am increasingly beginning to realize that I do not understand the mindset of those who had not. It is this realization that led me to reflect on the history of the phrase, and speculate the reason it holds such weight with the members of the Marine Corps..

The first thing I questioned was the Latin thing. Why not simply make the slogan "Always Faithful," since that is what the Latin phrase literally means? More people would certainly understand it. Apparently, whenever someone has something important to say, he translates it to Latin, and that lends the phrase credibility and respectability.

E Plurbus Unum. Pro bono. Carpe Diem. Mea Culpa. Sic Semper Tyrannus. The phrases are a part of our culture, but not native to our language. Unless we have been taught what they mean separately from our education in English, we would have no idea. I would wager that Semper Fidelis means more to those who use it than just about any other Latin phrase in use today.

Customarily, though, Latin has also been the language of law. Habeus Corpus, Stare Decisis, and Per Curium are terms one commonly would come across if he did only a precursory exploration of legal decisions. Even the United States adopted the practice of using Latin in its written Constitution, in spite of the desire to create a Constitution that could be easily understood by common people, who typically could not read and write Latin. However, America was a special case. The people had already been governing themselves for some time before the revolution. Unlike today, now that apathy reigns, participation in local politics was almost necessary for survival. That atmosphere of social and political cooperation was one that was replete with Latin phrases. America was unique--set apart from the other countries--for just that reason. It was a province that was governed by the people, not kings--and its people would not relinquish that tradition without a fight.

When doctors started translating ailments into Latin-Greek hybrids, they were criticized for creating a language that only doctors could understand. Of course, that was partly the point. It set apart those who could understand from those who could not--thus both signifying the value that doctors provided as well as creating a group of people who could identify one another by their similar values and education.

The use of Latin in the Marine Corps motto is not bred from a very different motivation. Of course, the Marine Corps has never experienced a mutiny. Marines in England were revered for their loyalty to the crown, just as United States Marines are now revered for their downright fanatical dedication to each other, their service, and their country. Using Latin to characterize this quality represents its legitimization--its codification. Significantly, for Marines at least, it also provides a caste--a group that is separate and unique from any other--a group that has no desire to be like any other.

“It is not
negotiable.
It is not
relative, but
absolute.”

What is left unsaid in the motto is also notable. The phrase is "Always faithful." It isn't "Sometimes Faithful." Nor is it "Usually Faithful," but always. It is not negotiable. It is not relative, but absolute. Who is always faithful, though. and to what, exactly are they faithful? Interestingly, the simplicity of the phrase and the calculated neglect to specify its parameters seems to strengthen it. Marines pride themselves on their straightforward mission and steadfast dedication to accomplish it. Things do not need to be spelled out for them; they know what it means and what to do about it.

Even though Marines are known to swell with pride from time to time (they do, after all, have a noble legacy to continue), they are not snobbish. Even the use of Latin must make them uncomfortable, because they shorten an already-short motto to the more colloquial "Semper Fi." This does not misrepresent the phrase; it simply symbolizes the ability of common people to become part of a brotherhood that demands more of its members than any other comparable group in the world.

The longer I am out of the service, the more I recognize my draw to and longing for the culture of "Semper Fidelis." I suspect that reading this will impart nothing significant to Marines, as they already are aware of their glorious charge. It is my earnest hope, however, that it may help others understand the reason Marines hold the Corps in such high esteem. All those references by former Marines, in their new jobs, to "back when I was in The Corps," will begin to make a little more sense. Marines are imbued with Semper Fidelis, and all it means, and because they lived it for so long, they have difficulty accepting any less from others.

Semper Fi!

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