It’s that time of year when students dress in gowns, wear weird hats that fly off at the slightest breeze, and listen to long speeches in uncomfortable chairs. Yes, it’s graduation season, and many of the words that come up around this time have intriguing stories.
The idea of graduation itself is interesting. It derives from the Latin name graduated (a “step” or a “step”). Diploma also means “to mark with degrees of measurement”, according to Merriam-Webster. Students use Graduated cylinders – glass or plastic tubes with scales printed on the side – to measure the volumes of liquids in chemistry class. Likewise, graduation is a way to measure student progress.
More often, graduation signifies the completion of a stage of education, or of life more generally. For example, parents might report that their toddler has “finished” wearing diapers. When you graduate from college (or graduated from college or graduated from college – all is arguably okay, although the last one is British) you move on to another phase of life, be it the world of work. or more school. Many traditions have developed around this transition, including one that requires the wearing of a flat, square hat: the mortar.
Graduates have been wearing these hats for centuries, long before they were referred to in this way. They seem to have evolved in the Middle Ages from the barrette, a rigid three- or four-cornered hat worn by Roman Catholic clergy, which resembles a lunchbox. In the past, they were needed for almost any college occasion, from lectures to dinners. In addition to the long academic dresses, these hats distinguished “city” from “dress”.
In the 16th century, they were simply square caps or catercaps, stock up being a spelling of four (the number “four” in French). They became mortar boards in the 19th century, because they really look like the thin square planks, like painters’ pallets, that masons use to hold mortar as they move.
This term first appeared in an 1854 novel in which a decidedly ‘town’ guy with a thick cockney accent ends up wearing such a cap and declares: ‘I don’t care about that’ before mortar- board. ‘ ‘College students think he’s a big lark, but object to what they call the’ offensive ‘name he gives to their headgear – mortar is vulgar, in their opinion. So the term has probably spread as a joke, self-deprecating or something. It pierces the ball of academic gravitas and the ranking and distinction involved in graduation.
Don’t take yourself too seriously mortar suggests. You have a tool on your head, and it’s upside down.