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If you’ve ever been anywhere near a college dorm room, you’ve seen the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

The saying does have real historical context rooted in WWII Britain, but it’s better known for the period of time in the mid-2000s when it became a near-ubiquitous decorative staple.


Everywhere you went, the bold crimson and sans-serif lettering could be found taped up on walls, printed on mugs, tucked away in planners, hanging on keychains, slapped on bumper stickers — quickly followed by variations on theme, which became arguably more popular than the original.

This boom in commercial popularity quickly erased all of its original meaning and turned “Keep Calm and Carry On” into nothing more than a trite cliché.

Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images.

But “Keep Calm and Carry On” wasn't originally designed to be a novelty. It was actually an urgent plea — one of three slogans the British government released to rally the spirits of the people against the threat of Naziism during World War II.

Just before the outbreak of the war, the British government was in the midst of developing something they called “home publicity.” Up against the threat of Nazi forces, who famously garnered much of their support through propaganda, it was imperative the British government make efforts to unite the national community under the common goal of victory.

The publicity committee ultimately distilled their message into a poster campaign consisting of three simple slogans:

The attitude the government aimed to encourage — one of resiliency and strength — relied on all three parts of the message, not just the one we're most familiar with today.

While “Keep Calm and Carry On” by itself does communicate a certain measure of resoluteness, it can also easily become a message that encourages complacency. It's only when taken together with the other two parts of the campaign that we're able to understand the tough fighting spirit the British sought to promote.

During the war, two of the three slogans could be found printed all across the U.K. Photo by H.F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Funny enough, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was the only poster of the three the government never actually published.

There are conflicting ideas as to why “Keep Calm and Carry On” was never released to the public. One such report says it was decided the phrase was too condescending or too obvious. Another theory is that while the campaign itself was designed for the war, “Keep Calm and Carry On” was a survivalist message reserved for only the direst of circumstances: a German ground invasion in Britain. Since that never happened, the message was never released.

In 2017, let’s take a page out of Britain’s book and make sure all three of these posters are the ones that define our outlook.

Everyone is talking about how much 2016 sucked, but realistically, the number on the calendar had nothing to do with it. And the number on the calendar once the ball drops on New Year's isn't going to magically make all of the terrible things that happened this year go away. If we approach 2017 intending to just "Keep Calm and Carry On," there won't be anything standing in the way of next year turning out exactly the same way.

That's why we need those missing two-thirds of this message — because they remind us that a world we're proud of is one we need to work for. And your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution — your willingness to defend freedom and justice with all your might — these are the things that could bring us a brighter year ahead.

This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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