USC’s motto, PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT, can be loosely translated from the Latin as “let whoever earns the palm bear it.” The expression reflects the broad significance of palms, palm fronds and other branches of foliage as symbols of triumph, victory, ascension and regeneration in ancient times, and in particular may allude to the Roman custom of giving the victorious gladiator a palm branch as reward for prowess.
One of the earliest references to the phrase is found in a small volume of Latin verse, titled Lusus Poetici, which was first published by English theologian John Jortin in 1722. Decades later, it became widely known as the personal motto of Horatio Nelson, a British naval hero who distinguished himself during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1798, after a spectacular victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson was granted the title of Baron Nelson of the Nile, and the words PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT were added to his coat of arms.
Over time, the saying has been used as a watchword by diverse organizations ranging from athletic clubs to educational institutions such as the British Royal Naval School and other military academies as well as high schools, preparatory schools, and colleges and universities around the world. USC adopted the motto in 1908, when it was incorporated into the design of a new university seal.
Alluding as it does to accomplishment, righteousness and victory, USC’s motto speaks to qualities that are as inherent to the university today as they were in 1908. By holding fast to its foundational self-reliance, “we-can-do-more” spirit and steadfast commitment to open access for all students of merit, the University of Southern California indeed has earned the palm. Although it is less than half their age, USC ranks among a peer group of U.S. universities that includes Princeton and Yale. But USC is not content to rest upon its laurels. As President Steven B. Sample has put it: “USC is characterized by a keen desire to do even more tomorrow no matter how much we may have accomplished today.” USC has set its sights on becoming the worldwide paradigm for the research university of the 21st century. That goal is yet another palm, and USC is determined to earn it.