This is the official Wisconsin Union motto and means "light is increased by human relationships." It can be found in front of the Campus and Community Information desk at Union South, on the floor between the round furniture in front of the Campus and Community Information desk at Memorial Union, on the north wall of Der Stiftskeller, and on the ceiling of Tripp Commons. (Note: the plaques are pretty small in some places of Tripp Commons and they may be impossible to read)
Dead Language Alive and Well at the Union
What is “Societate Crescit Lumen”?
A) The name of Madison’s new hipster free-range coffeehouse/hot yoga salon/hug therapy clinic.
B) A good reason for little Societate Lumen Jr. to demand to be called “Spike” as soon as he can talk.
C) A Latin phrase.
Of course the answer is C) a Latin phrase.
I know this because I took three years of Latin, though I can only recall one sentence: “Elephantus non capit murem” which means “the elephant doesn’t catch the mouse”. Ha ha, you say, what kind of a dope spends three years studying a dead language and then can’t recall any of it? Other than the remote possibility of running into a 1500-year-old Roman who may or may not own a non-mouse-catching elephant, Latin is still relevant today. It’s the root of the Romance Languages -- Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian -- and a key component in what eventually became English, and to an extent, its somewhat rustic step-cousin dialect, American.
Latin has given us poignant phrases such as “veni, vidi, vici”, “e pluribus unum” and in the case of the Wisconsin Union, its motto -- “societate crescit lumen.”
Some students, staff and Union members at least have seen the motto somewhere in the Union. Or heard of it. Or think they’ve heard of it. But what does it mean?
The translation is not “I’d like a chai soy latte and a back rub while I’m doing downward-facing dog…” Rather, it’s “light is increased by human relationships.”
OK, Mr. Smarty-Toga, so what the heck does that mean?
Good question. I asked a few people familiar with the Union what it means to them:
Sarah Bergman, current Union President: “The Union creates a space to help students learn and grow from each other.”
Ted Crabb, Union Director Emeritus: “The motto envisions the Union’s purpose—to join together the university community to provide a common life and cultivated program for its members as part of the total educational experience.”
So, it fits. The Union is all about building community, linking people together and providing a convivial venue for all to gather, whether they are teaching French, studying Spanish or attending an elephant husbandry symposium.
The Union motto appears in several places in Memorial Union. I’d tell you where, but that would be cheating. It’ll give you a chance to wander around looking for it before the next phase of the Memorial Union Reinvestment begins in fall 2015 and the central and east part of the building will go dark for two years of renovation.
After a couple of frustrating hours, you can always ask the helpful Campus and Visitor Relations folks at the information desk in the west wing entrance. They’ll be glad to let you know where to find the phrase “Societate Crescit Lumen.” Just ask for Spike.