Commencement Day: A Bit of Word-History
— I have often heard the question asked why Commencement Hay is so called, both by fellow-students when in college and by intelligent persons outside of college, and hence infer that many of those who take part in the exercises of the day from year to year, and many who are otherwise acquainted with this anniversary, have little idea of the reason for its name. Humorous allusions also appear from time to time in print, the point of which is that Commencement must be applied to the ending of a collegiate course on the lucus a non lucendo principle. The latest pleasantry of this sort which has met my eye was in The Contributors’ Club of the February Atlantic, and ran as follows : “ Commencement Day (so called, with old-time perversity, because it is the ending of the collegiate career).” Such widespread mystification on this topic seems to warrant putting on record the history of the word. As is usual when the origin of a term is in question, persons addicted to speculative etymology have made various attempts to evolve the desired information from their inner consciencelessness. Thus it has been poetically suggested that Commencement is so called because it is to the young graduate the commencement of practical life. Again, there is a set of worthy partisans, to whom college means only Harvard, who are satisfied with the theory that the term originated when Commencement at that institution was in the fall, — at the commencement of the academic year. But the origin of this word must be sought farther back than the history of even the oldest American university extends, for it was a part of the endowment of college words and customs which the “ school at Cambridge ” received from England. We must seek it farther back, even, than the English universities: in those of Continental Europe, from the oldest of which, that of Paris, it is believed the general system of university honors was borrowed. It appears that the degrees of Master and Doctor are much older than that of Bachelor, and were granted in the early universities to those who had satisfactorily completed the trivium and the quadrivium, and who were consequently deemed competent to teach others. Says Professor Laurie, in his Rise and Early Constitution of Universities, “ Graduation was, in the mediaeval uni-
versities, simply the conferring of a qualification and right to teach (or, in the case of medicine, to practice).” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, article Universities, has the following : “ The bachelor, or imperfect graduate, was bound to read, under a master or doctor of his faculty, a course of lectures; and the master, doctor, or perfect graduate was, in like manner, after his promotion, obliged to commence (incipere), and to continue for a certain period, publicly to teach (regere) some, at least, of the subjects pertaining to his faculty.” Commencement, then, existed at first for those taking what are now called the higher degrees, and was the time when young men ceased to be pupils, and commenced to teach. The bachelor’s degree, marking the end of the trivium, or preparatory course, was first given at Paris ; and it seems that the bachelors were required to serve an apprenticeship at teaching, as a part of their preparation for the master’s degree. The student having performed the requirements of the trivium, “ he was,” says Professor Laurie, “ named a bachelor by the masters of that subject, and had now the right to wear a round cap, and not only the right, but the obligation, to teach freshmen. He was then said incipere in artibus.” Hence, even when extended to the graduation of bachelors, Commencement still carried the implication of commencing to teach. The requirement that all graduates should serve as teachers was gradually relaxed, till teaching was made entirely optional, and Commencement came to be, as at present, simply the occasion when degrees of all grades were conferred. In The Universal Pronouncing Dictionary, edited by Thomas Wright, Commencement is defined as “ The time when students in colleges commence bachelors ; a day in which degrees are publicly conferred on students who have finished a collegiate education. At Cambridge, the day when masters of art and doctors complete their degrees.” The definition given by H. Percy Smith in his Glossary of Terms and Phrases is, “ At the University of Cambridge, the day from which all degrees conferred for a year preceding date, and on which they are confirmed by recitation before the congregation of the Senate.” The foregoing citations seem sufficient to show that Commencement has always been synonymous with graduation day, and the idea, which has occasionally found expression, that it referred to the entrance of the freshmen, occurring at some periods on the same day, is evidently erroneous. This notwithstanding Smart, who defines Commencement as “The first Tuesday in July at Cambridge, on which day degrees being completed, new graduations commence.” Obviously it is a preposterous supposition that the day was named with respect to the youngest members of the university, to whom no such deference has ever been paid.