An Explicable Commitment to (Maybe?) Fake Latin

As a soccer coach and with a free trial to Apple TV+ I’ve been watching and enjoying Ted Lasso, about a bumbling (soccer-wise) but good-hearted (understatement) American football coach who is recruited to take the helm of the struggling EPL team AFC Richmond. I’ve been able, now four episodes in, to get past the incredulity of an EPL team being allowed to hire an un-credentialed coach for the highest (or at least most prominent) level of club soccer (motivations for said hiring notwithstanding) but I’m finding more inexplicable the team’s / show’s apparently unwavering commitment to its (potentially?) nonsensical Latin motto.

I understand and can accept having a Latin motto to include as the show establishes the team’s branding; it is not uncommon for soccer clubs (and in my experience, especially English soccer clubs) to have Latin mottoes as part of their crest. It lends the team, fictional at least in its inclusion in the EPL, a level of verisimilitude and, if we’re being honest, accentuates the show’s subtle focus on class distinctions so often associated with England: the variety of accents makes clear who is educated (owner and administrators) and who is not (players) and allows the campy Ted Lasso and his midwestern American twang not only to be linguistically the most prominent but also to suggest that it will be his good-natured approach to this role for which he is ostensibly unqualified that will ultimately break down those class barriers that centuries of classism have erected; already in episode four the stuffy and detached owner of the team, jilted by her philandering ex-husband, is beginning to be won over by Lasso’s unrelenting charm and is seen at the end of the episode drinking without shame champagne from the bottle in the back of a rickshaw with one of the players’ now ex-girlfriend.

What I don’t understand is why the show doubles, triples, and even quadruples down on its Latin motto in what seem gratuitously unnecessary ways. I first noticed the motto in the Pilot, in both the press room and the locker room, places where one would expect the more formal branding of the team to appear (the first three images are the same room / scene).

Makes sense. AFC Richmond is a ‘real’ club because it has a crest and a Latin motto. In Episode 2, however, inexplicably, the show includes the motto where one would never notice its absence:

While the second image above seems less forced (a formal looking banner around the stadium vs. a souvenir shop with the Latin motto as its banner) than the first, nonetheless the motto’s inclusion in both of these scenes suggests its importance to the show. There are plenty of scenes that don’t include the motto where it could be included, which suggests that it is consciously being included where deemed necessary and / or appropriate; someone is choosing to include the motto in at least certain scenes vs. others.

To maintain the show’s verisimilitude, the show’s fictional AFC Richmond has its own web page and Twitter feed, neither of which feature the Latin motto prominently; #WeAreRichmond is the hashtag included on the team’s profile. (For the record, as far as I could find, there is a Richmond Australian Rules Football Team, a Richmond AFC Irish soccer team, and a Richmond Athletic FC New Zealand soccer team, but not an English soccer team.) The show goes a long way to establishing its fictional bona fides, part of which is its inconsistent, if sometimes forced, use of its Latin motto.

The problem is this: the Latin motto in the end is at best ambiguous and at worst as fictional as the show itself. Gradarius Firmus Victoria is, if correct grammatically, awkward Latin. My guess is that it means something like ‘A firm hand (guides us) to victory’. Sean Hannity taught us that, despite the millions of dollars of production money that go into various media endeavors (less so for books than for TV, of course), art directors are willing to resort to GoogleTranslate when they want some Latin involved. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. At least when I put in various forms of what I think the motto means, GoogleTranslate does not produce Gradarius Firmus Victoria. And GoogleTranslate produces from the Latin something as nonsensical in English:

Now there is an argument that says that I’m missing the point, that I’m overthinking and overanalyzing (certainly not the first time), that the potentially nonsensical Latin motto is part of the joke, that it would only make sense that such a bumbling coach, organization, and team would reflect their bumbling nature in a similarly bumbling Latin motto.

And I can’t deny that possibility, however far-fetched it might seem. (This is the Alannis Morisette Conundrum: she wrote a song called ‘Ironic’, most of whose examples weren’t actually ironic. Does she not understand irony? Or is the titular irony the irony of a song called Ironic including examples that aren’t actually ironic? Similarly, the show Silicon Valley includes a grammatical correction from its nerdy CEO where his correction is, well, incorrect. Is the joke an esoteric wink at the few that would actually know that his correction is incorrect? Or do the writers actually not know their grammar? For a grammatical point this abstruse, it’s impossible to know.)

An analysis of the Latin, however, doesn’t provide much clarity. (On the off chance there are a non-Latin knowers reading, this is where the post gets technical.) Gradarius relates to steps, progress (think the English ‘gradual’ or ‘gradation’). The GoogleTranslate definition is ‘pacer’. My sense is that it refers to a guide, one progressing through the steps; I would assume the coach. The problem, however? Gradarius is barely a Classical Latin word. Lewis and Short identifies it as rare, not appearing in Cicero, with the only Classical reference Seneca’s Epistles (identifying Cicero as the gradarius: Cicero quoque noster gradarius fuit, Sen. Ep. 40, 11.). The source for this word wouldn’t have been a Classical Latinist or a Classical Latin source; it is exactly the kind of word that an online translator or a low end online dictionary, neither of which distinguish between Classical and non-Classical Latin or chart stylistic usage, would provide. Firmus is a relatively common word meaning ‘strong’. Victoria is another relatively common word meaning ‘victory’.

Neither gradarius nor firmus, both nominative, is a noun; they are both adjectives, though it seems that gradarius is intended as the noun here and can be / has been used as a noun. Victoria is a noun but neither gradarius nor firmus can agree with it; victoria is feminine and both gradarius and firmus are masculine.

Victoria introduces additional ambiguity: that -a ending can be either the nominative or the ablative (and I would not expect the show to include a macron to distinguish the two). My assumption is that victoria is (supposed to be) the predicate, that victoria completes the meaning of whatever gradarius firmus means. An ablative victoria, however, which the -a ending suggests, would have to mean ‘by means of victory’ or, perhaps, ‘because of victory’. An easier meaning for victoria would be ‘to victory’, that whatever gradarius firmus means is completed by ‘to victory’, but ‘to victory’ would require a different ending for victoria, the dative victoriae.

As it is written, the motto seems not to make sense: if we assume that all words are nominative, the meaning becomes something like ‘A strong guide is (equals) victory’, a plausible, and indeed the only possible grammatical, meaning but not a particularly emphatic meaning, even if it does dovetail with the point of the show (reading gradarius as a noun eliminates the incongruity of two masculine adjectives agreeing with a feminine noun). With victoria as ablative: ‘A strong guide (wins / leads) by means of victory’ or ‘because of victory’? Not sure exactly what that means. The strongest meaning is ‘A strong hand / coach guides us to victory’; that has the strength of other Latin mottoes that I assume the show is trying to invoke. But that’s not what the Latin says.

So in the end we’re left with either an unfortunately weak Latin motto or a Latin motto that doesn’t make sense in, well, Latin. Now these are esoteric and irrelevant concerns, and ultimately ones that perhaps the smallest percentage of your viewers would notice. The point here is this, however. To people in prominent positions that want to incorporate Latin: we’re closer than you think. We’re on social media, your neighbors, a quick email or direct message away. Want a Latin motto? We’re happy to provide you with one. In fact, we’ve been trained to do that very thing. And we’d probably even do it for free (I’d take an AFC Richmond kit, if you have one lying around; I’m an XL shirt and an L shorts). We just love when we see Latin in ‘real’ places; we show our students, we shout out loud, we tell our Latin friends. We know how ubiquitous Latin is; we just wish other people did as well. The publicity of being able to say ‘That Latin on that show? I did that.’ is more than enough to sate us. So, Ted Lasso (the show), you’re not as bad as Vivamus vel libero perit Americae, but you can do better than Gradarius Firmus Victoria, especially if you want to put it on the banner of your souvenir stand.