Sic Semper Tyrannis: What Does This Latin Phrase Mean?

We’ve covered a lot of educational topics here at Typing Adventure.

From time to time, we have spelling blog posts that differentiate certain word pairings like good night and goodnight. We also talk about the meanings behind famous English phrases and idiomatic expressions, such as raining cats and dogs.

This article, we’re going to tackle something a little more challenging — Latin phrases.

Fun fact: much of the English language comes from Latin. Many English words, in fact, share Latin roots with Romance languages, such as Italian, French and Spanish.

Decoding a new word, therefore, is often easy when you consider the bits of Latin you know. The Latin root “aud” means, “to hear.” This forms the basis for English terms like “audience” and “auditorium.”

One Latin phrase we’re going to talk about today is one of the famous Latin slogans around. This phrase is sic semper tyrannis.

The Meaning of Sic Semper Tyrannis

The state motto used by Virginia is sic semper tyrannis. Photo by Thomas Cizauskas via Flickr Creative Commons

Sic semper tyrannis literally translates as “thus always to tyrants.” A tyrant, by definition, is a ruler who arbitrarily and unjustly wields power to oppress the citizenry. The idea is that a tyrant will surely meet a dire end, which is expected and just.

This Latin phrase is flexible in usage. It can be a simple statement of fact, an expression of motive or a prediction of inevitable future events.

Sic semper tyrannis also happens to be Virginia’s state motto since 1776. The purpose of this phrase was to capture the fervor felt by the people of Virginia when they declared independence from Great Britain. Virginians saw that the rules were being tyrannical in many ways.

Throughout the ages, political opponents hurl this phrase to characterize rulers as tyrants and express the idea that tyrants should and will be overthrown. Protestors also use sic semper tyrannis as a rallying cry when deposing or opposing a despot.

When Was Sic Semper Tyrannis First Said?

The origins behind sic semper tyrannis remain unknown to this day. There have been, however, theories circulating on the web regarding the possible origin of this popular phrase.

One of the two stories comes from ancient Rome, both of them linked to Brutus.

Back in 509 B.C., he founded the Roman Republic by overthrowing a tyrannical king named Tarquin. Then, in 44 B.C., Brutus killed Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar who had been behaving tyrannically in Pompey’s Theater. Brutus supposedly uttered sic semper tyrannis in these situations.

Sic Semper Tyrannis in U.S. History

John Wilkes Booth shouted sic semper tyrannis when he shot and killed Abraham Lincoln. Photo by Marion Doss via Flickr Creative Commons

Others attributed the Latin phrase to a significant event in U.S. history. On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, a well-known professional actor, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and shouted, “sic semper tyrannis!”

On this sad day, Booth gunned down Lincoln from Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. His opposition to Lincoln’s push for voting rights for people of color resulted in him conspiring against the most powerful person in the land. There was a plot to permanently silence Lincoln along with other prominent figures in politics, but the president was the only one who died.

What motivated Booth to use the phrase remains unknown. Others speculate that he got the phrase from a line in a pro-Confederate Civil War song titled “Maryland, My Maryland.” Booth, at that time, sympathized with the Confederate cause. Although many didn’t remember President Lincoln as a tyrant in history, there’s a possibility that Confederate sympathizers like Booth looked at him like a tyrant.

Sic Semper Tyrannis in Modern American History

Sic semper tyrannis never faded away in the United States. It came back into the American public eye after the Oklahoma City Bombing of 1995. Timothy McVeigh, the person behind the attack, bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which resulted in 168 fatalities and 680 injuries. He looked at the U.S. government as a tyranny that should be overthrown.

The authorities arrested McVeigh on April 19, 1995 — the same day as the bombings. Instead of uttering sic semper tyrannis, he wore a shirt depicting Abraham Lincoln and the Latin phrase. He was using the t-shirt to justify his actions and show support for the actions of John Wilkes Booth.

People still use sic semper tyrannis to this day — even at the height of the pandemic. Back in May 2020, protesters hung an effigy of Governor Andy Beshear from a tree outside the Kentucky State Capitol. The effigy had the phrase “sic semper tyrannis” written near it.

Sic Semper Tyrannis in Popular Culture

This Latin phrase appeared many times in popular culture. “Crazy” Joe Davola, a character in the hit sitcom “Seinfeld,” yelled sic semper tyrannis before an unsuccessful attack on Jerry Seinfeld, the main character on the show.

You’ll also see a variation of this phrase on some famous websites. Joseph Robert Hawley, a music artist, has the phrase “Sic Semper Joe Hawley” in the bottom left corner of all the web pages. Here is his website in case you’re interested.

If you’re going to use sic semper tyrannis today, understand the essential differences between democracy and tyranny.  A political figure who does not share your beliefs isn’t necessarily a tyrant. A government that does not do what you’d like isn’t necessarily tyranny. Know the meaning and history behind the Latin phrase before you use it in any conversation.

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