Last week a professor in my department asked me why we call a graduation ceremony “commencement” when the event marks the end of college. “To commence” means “to begin,” not end, so it seems like an odd name for the ceremony.
I thought that was a great question, and I didn’t have an answer, so I did some research.
Some sources say that we call it commencement because it marks the beginning of students’ new lives in the world, the beginning of their professional life.
But other sources take a more historical approach and say that in medieval times, a student entered the university as an apprentice and at the end of that period commenced as a university master or doctor.
For example, the book The Founding of Harvard College explains that a person needed a license to lecture, and just like many other trades at the time, teachers formed a guild. Undergraduates today are the intellectual descendants of those apprentice members of the teachers guild who were working to get a teaching license. Once they received a license, they were initiated into this masters of arts guild through a ceremony called commencement (or in Latin inceptio). They were beginning their careers as masters of arts; they were being initiated as teachers.
The word commencement isn’t the only thing we’ve kept in graduation ceremonies from medieval times: medieval scholars at universities such as Oxford and Cambridge also wore caps, gowns, and hoods similar to those that graduates wear today.
That's your Quick and Dirty Tip: We call graduation ceremonies commencement because in the past they marked the beginning of a person’s career as a master of arts at the university—in other words, the beginning of a person’s career as a university teacher.
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