August 30, 2016

Words of the Month - Back to School

        Tomorrow is the first day of school for P and T, and in the spirit thereof, here are a few school-related words with interesting histories.

school - The original Greek root skhole meant “spare time, leisure, idleness.”  So how did we get from “leisure” to its apparent opposite on this, the last day of summer vacation for my children?  Thank the Romans, for whom the right and proper use of free time was philosophical debate, lecture, and learned conversation.  From there we get the gathering of pupils and teacher, and the place of instruction.  Considered in light of the history of child labor, getting to attend school is indeed an intermission from work.

anthology - This staple of literature textbooks has a lovely etymology.  It comes from Greek for “gathering of flowers.”  Originally describing a collection of poetry, the ancient Greeks thought of the poems as lovely flowers - a poetic name for a poetic book.  The term was borrowed into Latin, and eventually into English in the 1630s.

plagiarism - A serious intellectual crime, but one that teachers are always needing to educate against because, sadly, so many students (and speech-writers) seem to feel the temptation.  If you don’t see why plagiarism is so bad, consider the etymology: in Latin a plagiarius was a “kidnapper, rapist, or plunderer.”  The word was first used to describe literary theft by Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, Roman, c 40-c 103 CE).  It entered English in the 1620s, when printing was exploding throughout Europe, and thus unauthorized copies of books were also exploding throughout Europe.  (Early laws all tended to focus on the rights of the printers, rather than the rights of the authors, however.)

school of fish - It kind of makes sense to call a group of fish a school, gathered together as they are like students all following a particular lesson plan… But that’s not the real etymology at all.  In fact, it seems that fish swim in schools nowadays only because back in the days of impressionistic spelling, school could be written the same as shoal, “a large number.”  So it was simply misreading that gave us scholarly fish — insufficient schooling leading to an extra meaning of school?



[Pictures: Teacher and students, woodcut from Epitome de sanctis by Georg Witzel, 1551 (Image from UPenn Libraries);
Circular Fish, woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1956 (Image from Wikiart).]

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