The Marine Corps Doesn’t Know Why It Chose ‘Semper Fi’ As Its Motto

History
The Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon marches in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial on their way to perform for the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington April 12, 2014.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Bryan Nygaard

The few, the proud, the Marines: custodians of a proud martial tradition dating back to Nov. 10, 1775. So it might surprise you to know that the Marine Corps doesn’t know why its motto is Semper Fidelis. The iconic phrase, Latin for “always faithful,” has captured the spirit of Marines, past, present, and future, since the 1880s. But the reasoning behind its selection is still unknown.


No, really. We asked the Marine Corps, and they didn’t know. Neither did anybody else. Turns out the only person who could have told us for sure is this guy, Col. Charles Grymes McCawley, the eighth commandant of the Marine Corps:

Col. Charles Grymes McCawley, the eighth commandant of the Marine Corps.Marine Corps History Divsion photo

The son of a Marine captain, McCawley served in the Mexican-American war at the Battle of Chapultepec and later during the Civil War. He held the Marine Corps commandant post for 15 years until retiring in 1891 and is credited with a number of lasting advances for the service. He was instrumental in raising training standards, securing a quota for Marine officers from the Naval Academy, and enforcing Corps-wide uniform regulations (though you can’t blame him for uptight grooming standards — just look at that ’stache.) He also made the Marines early adopters of cutting-edge technology, like the typewriter and and the telephone.

In 1883, McCawley made “Semper Fidelis” the official Marine Corps motto. Beyond that, details are pretty scant. Here’s what we were able to find out about the Corps’ most cherished credo.

It wasn’t the service’s first snappy slogan. There was “Fortitudine,” Latin for “with strength”; “To the shores of Tripoli,” commemorating the Marines’ action at the Battle of Derna in 1805, which got a song eventually, too; and then there was “Par Mare, Par Terrum,” Latin for “By Sea, By Land,” a motto shared by Britain’s Royal Marines.

Related: The True Story Of How ‘E-Tool’ Smith Earned His Famous Nickname »

The emergence of Semper Fidelis — often shortened to Semper Fi — as the Marines’ motto came a few years after the service decided to make some aesthetic changes to its uniforms and iconography, changes that would better capture the elite and professional nature of the Corps.

Col. Jacob Zeilin, the seventh commandant of the Marine Corps.Marine Corps photo

In Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps, noted military historian Allan Reed Millett draws a connection between these uniform changes, made by McCawley’s predecessor as commandant, Col. Jacob Zeilin, and the adoption of the Semper Fi motto. It all started, Millett writes, with Zeilin’s adoption of a more distinctive and dynamic cap insignia: An eagle perched on a globe (showing the Western Hemisphere) superimposed over an anchor.”

The commandant, of course, had jacked that now-famous eagle, globe, and anchor from the British Navy’s globe-and-laurel crest. Which is fine, since America pretty much stole the whole idea of a Marine Corps from Britain and made that, better, too.

In any case, the E.G.A. became standard on all Marine uniforms by 1875. And the commandant went right back to the British well for inspiration: Zeilin stole the Royal Marines' “Par Mare, Par Terrum” motto, too. But after succeeding Zeilin as commandant — and perhaps thinking his predecessor had taken the British mimicry a little too far — McCawley changed the motto to the more original Semper Fi.

So, we know that in 1875 the service went through some changes for the sake of a sharper image; it got a new emblem, and a newish motto. And no one might begrudge McCawley’s decision to trim back at the service’s borrowed phrasings. But that doesn’t answer the question: Where’d he come up with “Semper Fidelis,” anyway?

While we may never know for sure, there’s plenty of history to the phrase itself. According to records provided by the Marine Corps History Division, the motto has its roots in Irish, Scottish, and English nobility, as well as among military outfits in 17th-century Europe whose members may have emigrated to the American colonies in the 1690s.

“As is the case with most Latin phrases which express an exalted idea in a pithy manner, ‘Semper Fidelis’ has a long and honorable history among mottoes,” the Marine Corps History Division said in a statement provided to Task & Purpose.

That included its adoption by “many of the ‘Wild Geese of Limerick’ who had fought in Ireland under Patrick Sarsfield and who took their martial talents to the Continent after their defeat in the Jacobite Wars (1691),” according to the statement. Those ornery warriors adopted the motto “Semper et Ubique Fidelis”: “always and everywhere faithful.”

Which sounds pretty cool, but isn’t really the same as proof. “No records have yet been uncovered to indicate the reason for the adoption of this particular motto, ‘Semper Fidelis,’” the Corps History Division told us.

That’s as much as we know. We could know more, but for a Marine, McCawley kind of sucked at writing things down with his ink stick.

“The problem is, McCawley’s papers and everything else, they’re not complete,” Patrick Mooney, a researcher with the National Museum of the Marine Corps, told Task & Purpose. “We don’t have a full accounting of the deliberations for why he chose Semper Fidelis. I’ve never read anything, or seen a document. I’ve never seen anything. It may have been an arbitrary choice by the commandant.”

So there you have it, the Marines don’t know why Semper Fi is their motto, because the commandant of the Corps failed to keep an accurate logbook. Cue chuckles from enlisted Marines across the globe.

Then again, perhaps the real history of Semper Fidelis doesn’t matter much to the men and women who take it as their credo today, according to Maj. Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman: “Arguably, at this point, what's more important is what the motto now means to current and former Marines who carry on that tradition of ever faithful service to their Corps and country that a Marine of any generation or century would recognize.”

WATCH NEXT:

With northeast Syria engulfed in the fog of war, the Turks, Russians, and Kurds have all launched their own propaganda campaigns to win the battle over information.

One of the biggest unknowns at the moment involves exactly how many ISIS fighters and their families previously captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces have managed to escape since Turkey invaded Kurdish-held Syria on Oct. 6, 2019.

But while Defense Secretary Mark Esper has blamed Turkey for catalyzing the release of "many dangerous ISIS detainees", a senior administration official was unable to say on Monday exactly how many ISIS prisoners may have escaped.

Based on open source reporting, about 850 women and children affiliated with ISIS are believed to have fled a detainee camp at Ayn Issa and another five ISIS prisoners escaped from a prison at Qamishli, said Caitlin Forrest, director of operations for the Institute for the Study of War think tank in Washington, D.C.

Read More Show Less

Few things say "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum" like a Navy amphibious assault craft absolutely covered with Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters ready to bomb an adversary back to the Stone Age.

That's the logic behind the so-called "Lightning Carrier" concept designed to turn those "Gator Navy" amphibs into ad hoc aircraft carriers — and the Corps appears to be moving slowly but surely into turning that concept into a new doctrine for the new era of great power competition.

Read More Show Less

The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report into the fatal crash of a B-17 bomber crash in Connecticut earlier this month.

Shortly after takeoff at 9:50 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2, the pilot of the vintage WWII-era plane signaled to air traffic control at Bradley International Airport that he sought to land.

Read More Show Less

While America's forever wars continue to rage abroad, the streaming wars are starting to heat up at home.

On Monday, the Walt Disney Company announced that its brand new online streaming service, aptly titled Disney+, will launch an all-out assault on eyeballs around the world with an arsenal of your favorite content starting on November 12th. Marvel Cinematic Universe content! Star Wars content! Pixar content! Classic Disney animation content!

While the initial Disney+ content lineup looks like the most overpowered alliance since NATO, there's one addition of particular interest hidden in Disney's massive Twitter announcement, an elite strike force with a unique mission that stands ready to eliminate streaming enemies like Netflix and Hulu no matter where they may hide.

That's right, I'm talking about Operation Dumbo Drop — and no, I am not fucking around.

Read More Show Less

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials were considering plans to move the U.S. nuclear arsenal from Inçirlik Air Base in Turkey.

This move would be likely to further deteriorate the tense relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, which has rapidly devolved as Turkey invaded northeastern Syria in assault on the Kurdish forces that fought ISIS alongside the U.S.

Read More Show Less