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Friday, July 19, 2013

By degrees

A faithful Wordlady reader, after reading my post about "diploma", inquired about the word "degree", and why it means a university accreditation in English whereas it does not in French. 

"Degree" and "graduate" are etymologically linked words.

"Graduation" comes from the Latin word gradus (a step in flight of stairs). This has given English many words, among them "gradual". There is one surviving usage in English in which "gradual" has retained the literal sense of the original gradus. In some Christian liturgies, there is something called a "gradual psalm". I used to think it was called that because it can seem to go on forever, but actually it is because originally this psalm was sung from the steps of the altar!

In medieval university Latin, gradus also meant a figurative step in the process of acquiring an academic education, and graduare was the verb used for acknowledging the achievement of each of those stages. By the late 1400s, there was an anglicized derivative of  this, "graduate", for a person who had achieved the first stage of his education. 

The verb "to graduate" came a century later. Then, and for about four centuries thereafter, it was used only transitively, for conferring a university degree upon someone. So universities graduated students, and students were graduated from universities. In the 1800s, an intransitive use arose: students graduated from universities. Predictably, this new usage prompted a lot of harumphing from usage commentators, and the transitive use ("I was graduated from" rather than "I graduated from") clung to life in the US longer than in the UK, though it has been in a freefall over the last century.

Just when usage commentators were probably admitting defeat on "she graduated from university",  in the mid-20th century, another development happened: people started saying, "She graduated university."  Hurrah! Something else to harumph about! As you can see from this graph, this usage is slowly (one might say gradually) increasing, and has already outstripped the original "was graduated from" pattern. But, for now, it still bugs many people.

"Degree" is another derivative of the original Latin word gradus, but it stopped off in French on its way from Latin to English. A degradus in Latin was also a step, but specifically a step down. As usual, the French dropped a few consonants from the Latin word to end up with degré. For several hundred years after we borrowed it from French in the 1200s, a "degree" was literally a step. But, just like gradus, it acquired figurative meanings so that by the 1300s it was also used to mean the stages of a university education and the diplomas marking them, a sense it did have in French also for a while but no longer.


  1. "degree" from "degrade" ? :) Hmmm ...

  2. Thank you! Interesting piece. No wonder people are confused. Graduate high school/graducate college (without from) getting more common in US. In (the) hospital (most Americans use "the" is on a similar pattern. Love finding out about these things. Ciao.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.