Ask Abe: It’s All Latin to Me

An Alum

What does “Numen Lumen” mean?

Abe

That depends on whom you ask. Some say that, translated from Latin, the motto in the UW’s seal means, “God, our light.” But John Lathrop (the UW’s first chancellor, who assisted in creating the motto) never gave that interpretation, and the word numen isn’t an easy one to translate. One popular — if grammatically tortured — alternative is, “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light.” Some scholars have stated that the phrase is simply untranslatable. Regardless, this credo was included on the UW’s first seal and was chosen to reflect the beliefs and values (however manifested) of Wisconsin citizens. Although “Numen Lumen” is still an important seal at the university, it is not as heavily used in representations of the UW today.