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What is the commonly theorized origin of the phrase "E Pluribus Unum"?

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Editor's note: Your old pal, the Trivia Geek, is still off on another freakish adventure this week, so I've pulled this Classic Geek Trivia from the archives, which originally ran Oct. 15, 2003, to commemorate the recent release of the new U.S. $50 bill. Look for a fresh batch of trivia on Oct. 27, 2004.

On Oct. 9, 2003, the U.S. Federal Reserve System began distributing the latest version of the venerable $20 bill, complete with all the most up-to-date anticounterfeiting measures one can reasonably squeeze in around the portrait of President Andrew Jackson. In fact, the new version features so many new additions—including the comparatively novel use of colors beyond black and green—that the bill can no longer afford the portrait's familiar oval frame.

Among the added attractions are the image of a blue eagle, small yellow numeral 20s in the background of the bill, color-shifting ink that changes hues based on the viewing angle, and extra embedded portraits of Jackson visible when held up to a light.

All of these new security designs serve to enhance the tried-and-true measures of the intaglio printing process (where the money paper is pressed into the die plates, rather than vice versa, giving elements of the bill a raised texture) and internal security threads that can't be duplicated photographically. All this effort so you can't run off your own wad of greenbacks using a color scanner and laser printer.

Some things about the $20 bill, however, won't change. For starters, it will still feature the aforementioned portrait of Andrew Jackson, as well as the national motto "In God We Trust." The original national motto, "E Pluribus Unum"—Latin for "out of many, one"—still appears on some U.S. currency as part of the Great Seal of the United States, and the replacement of the latter by the former has been a subject of some public controversy (and a few failed court challenges) since Congress approved its use in 1956.

Critics believe that the secular E Pluribus Unum is more austere and appropriate for a civic use on currency, but historians have pointed out that E Pluribus Unum may not have the glorified credentials many assume when citing the motto.


What is the commonly theorized origin for the Latin phrase "E Pluribus Unum," which appears both on the Great Seal of the United States and some U.S. currency, a phrase that may prove far more humble than many realize?

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing acknowledges the historical probability that the creators of the Great Seal, among them Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, probably copied the motto from an 18th-century periodical, Gentleman's Magazine, which used the motto on its annual compendium. For the magazine, the translated Latin phrase, "out of many, one," signified 12 issues bound into one volume, rather than 13 colonies bound into one nation.

Gentleman's Magazine was popular reading material among the cultural elite of the colonies during the Revolutionary period, and the Great Seal's creators almost certainly cribbed the motto from the well-known annual volumes. The fact that E Pluribus Unum survived the selection process is a testament to the motto's appropriateness, regardless of origin.

Three separate committees convened over the course of six years, each suggesting new elements—and new mottos—for the seal. While the first committee, which included Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams, suggested E Pluribus Unum, two subsequent committees offered several alternatives. Among these rejected mottos were "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God," "Bello vel Paci," which translates to "for war or for peace," and "Virtute perennis," which translates to "everlasting because of virtue."

Charles Thomson composed the final design of the seal, and Congress adopted it on June 20, 1782. Besides the E Pluribus Unum motto on the obverse, the reverse side of the seal features the mottos "Annuit Coeptis," which means "He [God] has favored our undertakings," and "Novus Ordo Seclorum," which means "a new order of the ages."

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble serves as further evidence that the Trivia Geek is too far removed from high school physics class for his own (or this column's) good. Several readers pointed out a calculation flaw in the Sept. 28 edition of Geek Trivia, "Low and behold."

The award goes to TechRepublic member Billbremer, who went so far as to rewrite the offending paragraph, which suggested that 20 cycles per second equaled 0.05 Hertz, in total:

"[Here's a] possible rewrite of paragraph three. 'Put another way, the lowest frequency sound a human being can detect is 20 hertz, a sound with an interval of one-twentieth of a second between cycles. The Perseus Cluster black hole generates sound with an interval of 10 million years between cycles. This represents the most sub-bass frequency ever detected.'"

Thanks to everyone who called out my mathematical gaffe, and kudos to the other physics geeks who went so far as to extrapolate more precise notations for the other figures in the article. Now that's a geeky discussion.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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