Here’s what we know about Santa Monica’s motto.

It’s “Populus felix in urbe felici.” Well, every once in a while “felici” is written as “felice.”

The Latin phrase is at least as old as City Hall – where it appears on the inlay in the lobby – which was built in 1938.

Just about everything else is up to interpretation or lost in the archives.

The translation of the phrase is a bit of a Rorschach test. Some residents say, “Happy people in a happy city” and others say, “Fortunate people in a prosperous land” with variations of every kind.

The Daily Press couldn’t locate pre-1938 examples of the motto in the Evening Outlook or the Los Angeles Times archives. Representatives at the Santa Monica History Museum were unsure as to the motto’s origins. The City Clerk’s Office, which holds many of the city’s old official records, also came up empty-handed.

“I don’t have a clue where the motto came from or which council approved it?” former Mayor Bob Holbrook said in an email to the Daily Press. “Several public speakers at council meetings have referred to it as Happy People in a Happy City. I never took Latin but have often wondered why the Italians no longer speak the language of the Roman Empire??”

Current Mayor Kevin McKeown did take Latin at a Jesuit pre-seminary high school.

“So for me the City slogan is ‘Fortunate people in a fortunate city,’ he said in an email.

It turns out both phrases could be correct.

“To figure out exactly what it means it would be nice to figure out who made it up,” said Andy Kelly, a distinguished research professor in UCLA’s English department.

Sorry, Andy, we’re striking out on that one. As a result, he said, the translations are countless.

“The word ‘felix’ was originally used geographically speaking, as far as I know, only once in ancient times,” he said, “to refer to the part of Arabia that was fertile. It’s called ‘Arabia Felix.’ It’s the southern part, around Yemen, and it was contrasted with ‘Arabia Deserta’, the desert part, and Arabia Petraea: ‘rocky Arabia.’ So fertile is yet another version. And I would think that prosperous would be a good translation too: A prosperous people in a prosperous city.”

The term ‘felix,’ Kelly said, comes into Spanish as ‘feliz.’

“We wish everybody a ‘feliz navidad,’ which is ‘happy nativity,’ or ‘happy birthday Jesus.’ That fits,” he said. “‘Happy’ is a bit too informal, I would think, for what you would want here. ‘Prosperous’ might be better, or something along those lines.”

Then there’s ‘populus,’ which, Kelly said, could create redundancy.

“The word ‘populus,’ in Spanish, became the word pueblo: people,” he said. “And of course ‘pueblo’ not only means ‘people’ but it means the concentration of people: a town. ‘Felix populus,’ by itself, would be ‘feliz pueblo,’ or ‘pueblo felice,’ so that would be enough. You wouldn’t need the second part: ‘Happy town in a happy city.’”

Even the pronunciation is up for grabs, Kelly said, laughing.

The classical translation of “felice,” a translation recreated for the time of Cicero — roughly the year of zero — would sound like “fay-leaky.”

The Italian, or liturgical, pronunciation would sound like “fay-leachy,” he said.

The English pronunciation, after, as Kelly put it, “the vowels went crazy,” would sound like “fell-eye-sigh.”

Kelly prefers the Spanish-American pronunciation, which sounds like “fay-lee-see.”

Former Mayor Holbrook had an idea for avoiding pronunciation woes.

“I have thought we should switch to English and adopt a new simplified motto,” he said. “Perhaps steal the motto of Faber College (Animal House) ‘Learning is Good.’ Obviously (our) motto has fallen short. Several residents and a few groups are unhappy people living in a happy city!”

dave@www.smdp.com

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