The earliest sundials, from Ancient Egypt to China to Europe, were often marked with dedications to god(s), patrons, and/or the craftsmen who made them. In the 1500s sundials began bearing mottos relating to time—its passage, the limited quantities allotted, how it should be spent, or as a brief memento mori to the reader to stop looking at the sundial and get on with their life.
Sundials represent a willful, anachronistic affectation in a world that has begun to dispense with clocks and watches.
Latin is a common language for the mottos: whether as quotations taken from the Roman writers Ovid, Martial, or Horace, or as translations of time-related sentiments. Mechanick Dialling, a 1769 manual for creating sundials, includes 300 “Latin mottos for dials, with their Meaning in English”, indicative of an expectation that a motto would be added. Margaret Gatty, who wrote the book on sundials (“The Book of Sundials”), collected 1,682 mottos in an appendix to her exhaustive history, taken from instruments all over Europe.
In the appendix, each location is carefully catalogued with notes as to placement, location of the sundial, and maker(s) if known. McLemore’s observation that they’re “all sad like that” is hard to argue with: there are a lot of ways to say “remember you will die,” “time is fleeting,” and “seize the day,” and many of them are in Gatty’s book. The motto that S-Town host Brian Reed finds in a mission garden, knowing to look for it because John told him to, does not appear there, but does in another: “Nil boni hodie diam perdidi: I did nothing good today — the day is lost.”
Ruit hora. (The hour is flowing away.)
Tempus fugit [velut umbra]. (Time flees [like a shadow].)
Utere non reditura. (Use the hour, it will not come again.)
Ex iis unam cave. (Beware of one hour.)
Lente hora, celeriter anni. (An hour passes slowly, but the years go by quickly.)
Meam vide umbram, tuam videbis vitam. (Look at my shadow and you will see your life.)
Mox nox. (Night, shortly.)
[Nobis] pereunt et imputantur. ([The hours] are consumed and will be charged [to our] account)
Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat. (All hours wound; the last one kills.)
[Pulvis et] umbra sumus. (We are [dust and] shadow.)
Serius est quam cogitas. (It’s later than you think.)
Sic labitur ætas. (Thus passes a lifetime.)
Ver non semper viret. (Springtime does not last.)
Tempus edax rerum. (Time devours things.)
Vidi nihil permanere sub sole. (I have seen that nothing under the sun endures).
Amicis qualibet hora. (Any hour for my friends.)
Una dabit quod negat altera. (One hour will give what another has refused.)
Vita in motu. (Life is in motion.)
Vivere memento. (Remember to live.)
(Source: Sundials, Sentiments, and S-Town—Liz Tracey, JStor Daily, Wiki—List of sundial mottos)