If you’ve ever met a Marine – and even if you haven’t – you’ve likely heard the phrase Semper Fidelis. This phrase is steeped in history and tradition, but most people outside the Corps don’t know its background. As such, we’ll use this article to provide an overview of Semper Fidelis – and why these words are so important to Marines.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the following:
- Semper Fidelis Meaning
- Official Marine Corps Motto
- Semper Fidelis History
- Meaning to Marines
- Once a Marine, Always a Marine
- Final Thoughts
Semper Fidelis Meaning
Semper Fidelis is a Latin phrase meaning either “always faithful” or “always loyal.” Frequently, people shorten the phrase, instead saying Semper Fi. However, both of these variants relate to the same Latin translation.
Official Marine Corps Motto
In the United States, Semper Fidelis serves as the official motto for the United States Marine Corps – and has so since 1883. Consequently, in America, the phrase now goes hand-in-hand with Marines and Marine culture.
According to official Marine Corps press material, Semper Fidelis symbolizes the lifelong commitment held by every Marine for the Corps and America, a promise reciprocated by the Corps to all Marines.
In other words, the motto represents a call for both personal and service-wide responsibility. For the individual Marine, living by this motto means a lifelong loyalty to both Corps and country. Concurrently, Semper Fidelis drives the Corps itself to always remain faithful to its individual Marines – past, present, and future.
Semper Fidelis History
While Semper Fidelis now seems inseparable from the Marine Corps, this service was not the first organization to employ the phrase as a motto.
Though not definitive, many scholars believe that ancient Roman senators coined the phrase. However, the first officially recorded use as a town motto occurred in France. Since 1369, the French town of Abbeville has used Semper Fidelis as its motto. Subsequently, numerous European towns have adopted the phrase as their own mottos.
From a military perspective, the Duke of Beaufort’s Regiment of Foot, established in England in 1685, represents the first military unit to embrace the phrase as its motto. In the ensuing years, more than a dozen other military units have adopted Semper Fidelis as their mottos.
Furthermore, while Semper Fi and Marine Corps are now nearly synonymous, this Latin phrase hasn’t always served as the Corps’ official motto. The Marine Corps was born on Nov. 10th, 1775, but, as stated above, the service didn’t adopt Semper Fidelis as its official motto until 1883 – over 100 years later.
During this period, the Marines used a few different slogans, to include:
- Fortitudine: meaning “with strength” in Latin.
- To the shores of Tripoli: a reference to the Marines’ successful military action at the 1805 Battle of Derna (this phrase remains famous due to its inclusion in the Marines’ Hymn).
- Per Mare, Par Terrum: meaning “by sea, by land” in Latin (and also the motto of the British Royal Marines).
Marines can thank the Corps’ eighth commandant, Colonel Charles Grymes McCawley, with making Semper Fidelis the official motto in 1883. Unfortunately, Colonel McCawley didn’t keep meticulous personal records, meaning Marine Corps historians cannot definitively say why he chose this phrase as the motto.
Meaning to Marines
Since its founding, millions of Americans have served in the Marine Corps – through peace, war, and everything in between. As such, it’s impossible to state exactly what Semper Fidelis means – and meant – in each one of their hearts.
With that said, these two words – without question – embody a fierce and total loyalty Marines have to A) the Marine brothers and sisters on their right and left, B) the Marine Corps as a whole, and C) the United States of America. And, from this loyalty arises an immense pride in claiming the title “United States Marine.”
As Headquarters Marine Corps states:
Throughout our history, Semper Fidelis has been a guiding principle for Marines to be loyal to their mission and faithful to each other through each and every battle. Becoming a Marine demands a sense of purpose and responsibility to serve — and Semper Fidelis is a permanent reminder of that.
Put simply, a Marine never wants to let another Marine, the Corps, or the United States down, a reality aptly summarized by the motto Semper Fidelis.
Once a Marine, Always a Marine
The idea of being always faithful means just that – embracing the Semper Fidelis motto does not end with the conclusion of a Marine’s military service. Once you earn the title Marine, you stay a Marine, regardless of whether or not you remain in uniform.
You’ll see this reality when people bristle at being called an “ex-Marine” or “former Marine.” No, they’ll say, I may no longer wear the uniform, but I’m still a Marine. According to General James Amos, 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps:
A Marine is a Marine. […] There’s no such thing as a former Marine. You’re a Marine, just in a different uniform and you’re in a different phase of your life. But you’ll always be a Marine because you went to Parris Island, San Diego or the hills of Quantico.
You’ll see the truth of this statement every year on Nov. 10th. Anywhere you find Marines – in or out of service – you can count on them to celebrate the Corps’ birthday. Whether at a formal birthday ball, a bar with fellow Marines, or just at home, thinking of those with whom they served, Marines will take a moment every Nov. 10th to pay homage to the Corps and their fellow Marines.
Once a Marine, always a Marine.
Semper Fidelis may only be two words, but the phrase stands for so much more. For United States Marines – past, present, and future – this motto underpins a pride in service without peer. And, it’s hard to find a quote that more effectively encompasses this pride than the following, made by Father Kevin Keaney, a chaplain for the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War:
You cannot exaggerate about the Marines. They are convinced to the point of arrogance that they are the most ferocious fighters on earth – and the amusing thing about it is that they are.
Maurice “Chipp” Naylon spent nine years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He is currently a licensed CPA specializing in real estate development and accounting.
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