Sunday, June 12, 2011


It's been a busy graduation weekend in my neck of the woods, which of course happens annually in a university town, and this year my oldest nephew graduated from high school and my close friends' son just graduated today from our old stomping grounds, UC Santa Cruz. It had been awhile since I'd actually attended a ceremony, but I did get up to my nephew's and although I thought it was more for him, I think in a way it was more for me. These kind of events place you in time, I think. It was pretty cool to see diversity represented as a reality in the student population, and to hear the student speakers add words in a variety of other languages in tribute to their parents. And I heard there small jazz group give the best rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' that I have ever heard. Brought it to life again.

So I know what graduation is. But the more I thought about the word, the less I understood about why it had come to be the label for this symbolic event. Surely it has a relation to 'gradual'. And grade? I guess you could say high school's end is approached 'gradually', but it seems like 'culmination' or some other word connoting achievement would be more in order.

Oh, well. It's been a long week. Let's find out.


So basically we have two different kinds of graduation among our definitions. We have the kind that is related to the ceremony of giving or recieving a diploma or degree, and we have the kind that is about measurement on a scale that increases by regular amounts, also called degrees. I would have guessed that making any kind of equation between these two different types of degrees would have been a bad analogy, but apparently they are quite related. According to the online Etymology dictionary, the term had a special significance in alchemy, which in the early 15th century meant 'tempering  or refining something to a certain degree'. It was at this time that the 'action of giving or receiving a degree' came into usage. Though I was unable to come up with a true etymology, it does seem as though the graduation  ceremony as we think of it today has that sense of refining or tempering a person to a different degree than when they started rather than being so much about the gradual process that proceeded it.

Be that as it may, the interesting thing to me is that both 'graduate' and 'degree', and for that matter 'gradual' and 'grade' all link back to the Latin gradus, or 'step, pace, walk'. This links them to such words as 'congress' and 'progress', and back to that theoretical precursor language, Proto-Indo-European, with ' *ghredh-, which  leads us to the Lithuanian gridiju "to go, wander," Old Church Slavonic gredo "to come," and old  Irish in-greinn "he pursues."

So many steps, so little time!

Congratulations to you, Evan and Charlie, and to all your cohorts. The following Gaelic blessing may be a bit of a cliche by now, but in this context it seems singularly apt.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

And to both of you, well done.



  1. Congratulations to all! I heard music as I read--the anthem, the pomp, and then the lovely Irish hymn.

  2. That's great, Kathleen. I have to say that the music in general was of a higher level than I would have expected.

    I forgot to mention that the day brought back memories of my own high school graduation--first the fact that being in band, I spent a fair amount of time going back and forth between my graduate role and that of the musical accompaniment. And secondly, it was of that moment in time where someone actually streaked the graduation. He took off for the back fence which led to an old rail line. My Spanish teacher ran after him and put his coat jacket over him. Much good as that did...

  3. I have just returned from a high school graduation party for a friend's daughter. I've known her since she was three months old, and now she's off to college!

    She'll be in a science program, which means she may do lab work with graduated cylinders.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Nice linking of both senses of the word, Peter!

    I don't really have the sense of where did all the time go--I know where it went, but I think these rites of passages may make an even stronger impression on those who have already passed through them.

    And I felt a strong sense of the parents graduating every bit as much as the kids.

  5. I'm looking at the photograph. Its a fantastic landscape, really evocative. I'm thinking it cant be California. Maybe Italy or Spain?

  6. Yes, I believe it was Italy. I lifted it off the internet, of course, but I think in this case it was some kind of free photo stock.

    I liked it for the idea of their future.

  7. Seana -

    I love it when you bring everything back to Proto-Indo-European! So very cool.

  8. I have to admit that I find the family of words aspect of all this pretty interesting too, Brian.