Getting back to school

As the circling year veers towards mist and mellow fruitfulness, schools in the UK and many other countries are re-opening – or have already – from COVID-19 induced closures. Government and experts agree that restarting education is not merely a pedagogical imperative but a social one.

The official statement by the UK’s health officials seeks to reassure parents about the risks. In the wake of the various exam results fiascos it might be hard to make public confidence bounce back. Which, if you take the very long view, is what ‘result’ means.

Like many educational words, its ultimate source is Latin, in this case the verb resultāre, ‘to rebound, bounce back’. It came into English as a verb early in the 1400s and then Francis Bacon (the ascetic philosopher, not the roué painter) turned it into a noun in an early example of nouning. Yes, there is such a thing. It’s the counterpart of the often criticised verbing. Also known technically as ‘nominalization’, it’s a trick English plays that has been around since time immemorial, e.g. fruitful begets Keats’s fruitfulness. Recently the trend has been to take verbs as they stand and turn them into nouns, which is responsible for the popularity of nouns such as fail and reveal – remember when people used to say failure and revelation?

… in England … education produces no effect whatsoever

‘Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever’ is the provocative statement Wilde puts into the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest as she grills her daughter’s suitor. Obviously, students keen to gain qualifications will beg to differ. Her quip is arguably Wilde’s rather more sophisticated take – take is another instance of nouning, a fourteenth-century one – on those adages ‘the school of hard knocks’ and ‘the university of life’.

Given that education in Britain revolved around Latin for centuries, it is hardly surprising that the word itself, like result, comes from a Latin verb – ēdŭcāre, ‘to rear, bring up’ – which in turn is closely related to another Latin verb, ēdūcere. One of the latter verb’s meanings is ‘to draw out’, which gives rise to the cliché popular with education(al)ists that education is ‘drawing out what is within’ the child.

And education is indeed not solely the knowledge imparted from outside the individual in formal schooling. It can mean personal knowledge and development from within. Hence, other languages that have borrowed the Latin word put a different spin on it, as in Flaubert’s Éducation sentimentale for French, which, though conventionally translated as ‘Sentimental Education’, really means ‘Education in love’; or Spanish maleducado, ‘rude’, or literally, ‘badly educated’.

English and Romance languages all borrow heavily from Latin but the end results often diverge greatly in meaning. Take bursary, bursar, matriculation and ex cathedra. A bursary is a grant awarded to a student and comes from the medieval Latin bursāria, a treasurer or bursar’s room. In some universities a bursar administers finance and the job title comes from the 13C Latin bursārius, keeper of the bursa, the ‘purse’. For French, Latin bursa is almost certainly the origin of Bourse, the stock exchange.

When you matriculate, you enrol formally at your university. That comes from post-Classical Latin mātrīcula, an index or list. In Spanish, as well as meaning ‘enrolment’, the word matrícula can refer to a car registration number and to the number plate itself. To speak ex cathedra is to speak with authority: the authority, say, of a learned professor or wise bishop. The cathedra in question is a ‘chair’ in Latin, which in turn took it from Greek καθέδρα, and ex cathedra is literally ‘from the chair’. From cathedra derives ultimately the English word cathedral, as the location of the bishop’s chair. In Italian, its descendant cattedra can be used of a teacher’s desk or, equally, of a professorial ‘chair’.

Finally, one Latin word that was once general English but is now confined to Scots is dominie, a schoolmaster, often with implications of being domineering and strict. From the vocative case, domine, of Latin dominus, master – so, ‘O master!’ The vocative appears too in the City of London’s motto: Domine dirige nos, ‘Guide us, O Lord.’

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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