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WORDS OF CON-GRADUATION

Anyone who has attended graduation ceremonies at the end of a school year has heard at least one speaker explain that Commencement refers not to an ending, but to a beginning. But many other words associated with graduations do not have such obvious origins.

For example, a religious service for graduating seniors is called the baccalaureate.  It's a unusual word, that one. Baccalaureate. It sounds like a cross between a Greek pastry and a Roman orgy. Actually, baccalaureate comes from the medieval Latin "baccalaris," a young nobleman seeking to become a knight. The same source gives us bachelor, originally a young knight serving under another's banner.  In the Middle Ages the Bachelor of Arts degree was awarded to a young man who had completed his study of the liberal arts.  Of course, the term is a misnomer now.  It not only overlooks the achievement of women in education, but also it seems to refer to someone who is interested in the arts, engaged in the arts maybe, but not quite married to them.  To be consistent, perhaps we should give our honors graduates the degree "Most Eligible Bachelor of Arts."

Graduating seniors receive their degree in a diploma.  This word means simply "twice folded,"  referring to a document folded twice to form its own envelope (from Greek di, "two," plus a word related to pliable, "easily bent or folded.")  Diplomats originally carried important documents of state folded in this fashion, with an official seal binding the two flaps.  (Now perhaps such couriers should be called faxmats.) 

Officials at institutions of higher learning sometimes discuss the extent to which they should act in loco parentis, providing quasi-parental guidance.  The jargon of higher education reveals that this is no new issue.  For instance, the word matriculate, "to enroll or register," is ultimately derived from Latin matrix, "womb," and mater, "mother."  And when alumni fondly refer to their alma mater, they are literally "foster children" referring to their "foster mother."  The al- beginning of each term derives from a Latin word meaning "nourishment or support."  The word alimony comes from the same source. 

Speaking of money, seniors can't graduate until they've made arrangements to pay off their tuition.  This word also suggest supervision in place of the parents.  It comes from a Latin root meaning "to look after, watch out for;  to protect."  Intuition is related, referring to one's inner seeing, the ability to know something without experiencing it directly or reasoning it out.  Presumably, if young people had better intuitions, their parents wouldn't have to pay out so much for tuition.

Another interesting word we hear at graduation is mortarboard, to describe the distinctive cap that graduates wear.  But if you can't figure out where that term comes from, you don't deserve to know.
 

Recent Publications

The Way We Word 

WHAT'S IN A SURNAME? 

ITS A DOG'S WORD 

NEW WORDS FOR A NEW CENTURY 

WORDS FOR THE BIRDS 

KINGS AND CABBAGES: The Origin of Common German Family Names 

NEARBY PLACES WITH STRANGE-SOUNDING NAMES 

DOWN BY THE RIVERSIDE: Names of Pennsylvania's Rivers and Creeks 

WORDS OF CON-GRADUATION 

 


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