Finishing school

Words associated with graduation

It’s graduation season, a good time to look at some of the words and ceremonies associated with this rite of passage.

Let’s start with the word “graduate.” The person being awarded a degree is then and forever more a graduate. From the 16th through 18th centuries, the only “proper” usage was to say that the institution “graduated” the student, or that the student “was graduated from” an institution; the verb could not be used by the student. But beginning in the 19th century, students could say they “graduated from” a school.

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that, “In the mid-20th century, usage began to shift further,” and people started to say they “graduated college,” dropping the preposition. “This poor wording is increasingly common,” Garner’s says, though it’s only at Stage 3 on the five-stage Language-Change Index. Most dictionaries say “graduating college” is “informal,” and most style guides, including that of the Associated Press, call for the use of the preposition.

These graduates are also “matriculants,” but all “matriculants” are not “graduates.” Not yet, at least. A “matriculant” is simply someone who is enrolled in a program or school. Such a person may also be called a “matriculate,” though that usage is uncommon. The verb is also “matriculate.”

Any form of “matriculate” seems jargony, and it almost always can be replaced with a clearer word, like “enrolled.” They all derive from old words for “enroll,” after all. The Oxford English Dictionary says “matriculate” may have been influenced by the Latin word “mater,” or “mother.” That’s as in “alma mater,” the nurturing mother (or university).

The top graduate may be called upon to give the “valedictory” or “valediction,” from the Latin for a farewell speech. The second-highest graduate may be asked to give a “salutatory,” or message of greeting. (Since the idea of a speech is embedded in those words, you don’t need to add “speech” or “address,” but you can, making them adjectives instead of nouns.) In theory, the “salutatorian” comes before the “valedictorian,” even though the student’s ranking didn’t. The OED traces the first printed use of both “valedictorian” and “salutatorian” to the 1847 Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, meaning we started it here.

The new graduates become “alumni,” also derived from Latin, meaning “foster son.” (Do you detect the pattern?) “Alumni” can be male, or a mixture male and female, but there must be more than one. A single male graduate is an “alumnus”; a single female is an “alumna”; more than one female are “alumnae.” Given the gender identity issues on campus and elsewhere, you can call them all “alums” and be done with it: Garner’s says that “clipped” form is at Stage 4, meaning it wouldn’t be acceptable to your Latin teacher, but probably is to everyone else.

Finally, most graduations are accompanied by some version of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Edward Elgar composed it for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1901, and heard it played for him when he received an honorary degree from Yale in 1905, NPR reported in 2003. “After Yale used the tune, Princeton used it,” as did the University of Chicago, Columbia, and others, NPR music commenter Miles Hoffman said. Eventually, “everybody started using it. It just became the thing that you had to graduate to.”

In other words, everyone wanted to be Pomp-ous. You can be, too, by using “matriculate.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.