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Friday, September 12, 2014

Eager, zealous, diligent, and addicted to study, yup

Photo by Stephan Vance on Unsplash
With school and university terms now underway, a Wordlady reader has asked about the words "pupil" and "student".
Both "pupil" the student in school and the pupil of the eye derive from the same Latin word, but took quite diverging paths. The Latin word was pupillus which meant "child", but specifically an orphan child, one who was under the care of a guardian. This is what the word meant when it first entered English. In Wycliffe's translation of the Bible in 1382, for instance, people are adjured to "visit pupils and widows in their tribulacioun". Two hundred years later, in Shakespeare's time, the word was being used to mean a university student; by the 19th century it came to be restricted to schoolchildren. 

Meanwhile, the original Latin word was also developing along other lines. The feminine form was pupilla, which, as well as meaning "female child", also meant "doll". The Romans used this word for the opening in the iris because if you look into the pupils, tiny reflected images can be seen. The word didn't get borrowed into English in this sense till the 1500s; before that the pupil was called the "black of the eye", or the "sight" or "sight-hole", or, way back in Old English, "the apple of the eye". .The figurative use of "the apple of someone's eye" dates all the way back to King Alfred the Great's time.

Teachers will no doubt be entertained to learn that the word "student", defined in its first sense in the Oxford English Dictionary as "A person who is engaged in or addicted to study" ("addicted"??), is derived from the Latin word studēre (to be eager, zealous, or diligent at studying; to seek to be helpful). 

Although the language distinguished between students at university and pupils in lower education, starting in about 1900 in the US, the word "student" came to be used of all levels of instruction.

For the origin of the word "truant", see this post:

For the origin of the word "school", see this post:

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1 comment:

  1. Hello, Katherine.

    My name is Benjamin Madeira. I am a Guatemalan guy, but I am living in Norway. I am currently studying the English language at a University in that Scandinavian country.

    I came across your blog by searching online which blog had won the "Love English Awards" in 2013, and I found "the link of your blog-spot".

    I found all about the words "pupil" and "student" in youtr post very insighful.

    When I was a child, my first teacher advised his "pupils", to behave us as "students" and not as "alumnos" (Spanish word for "pupils". And then he went on to explain us that the word "alumno" meant "a person without light".

    If he were alive today I would refute his theory. There is a popular urban legend in Spanish speaking countries, desguised as "ethimology", which is absurd, saying that "alumno" ["alumnus"], is a compound word: the negative "a" (from Greek, not from Latin) and "lumen", meaning "light"; and that the Spanish ending "-no" ["alumNO"] makes it obvious that it means "without". Thus, "alumno" ["pupil"] would mean "he/she who has no light", or "he/she who is not illuminated".

    We know that in Latin they did not compound words mixing Greek and Latin stems. Therefore, it does not make sense. We have to notice as well that the Latin word ends in -nus, which has nothing to do with the Latin negative non.

    Now, what can you comment on the word "alumni" that we use in English?

    As you know "alumnus" and "alumna" both came from Latin and preserve Latin plurals. "Alumnus" is a masculine noun whose plural is "alumni", and "alumna" is a feminine noun whose plural is "alumnae". Coeducational institutions usually use "alumni" for graduates of both sexes. But those who object to masculine forms in such cases may prefer the phrase "alumni" and "alumnae" or the form "alumnae/i", which is the choice of many women's colleges that have begun to admit men.

    Finally, my question: what can you comment on these terms? Why do you think or know that they are still used as in Latin? Why did they not develop the same way as "pupil" and "student"?


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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.