A “class” of words

Teach, a word of Germanic origin, came into Old English around 888 AD, and first meant “to present or point out; instruct”. The word teacher was first used to mean “that which points out or shows,” so might have been used to refer to a stick or ruler used to indicate direction. This soon began to be used in the sense of “instructor.”

Literally meaning ‘most important’, principal came to be the accepted word for the person in charge of a school or educational institution. Earlier, such a person was called the ‘head teacher’ or ‘lead teacher’.

School traces back to Greek schole which originally meant “leisure.” Later on, when Greek teachers like
Aristotle and Plato held discussions with groups of young men, it came to imply “learned discussion,” and “study.” It then passed into Latin as schola, place of study, and became the root of such words as school’ and ‘scholar’. This word appeared in English by 1000 AD as the old English scol and it has cognates in nearly all Celtic, Romance and Teutonic languages.

The word mentor is of Greek origin. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mentor as “allusively, one who fulfils the office which the supposed Mentorfulfilled towards Telemachus. Hence, as common noun: an experienced and trusted advisor.” Telemachus was Ulysses’ son (from Homer’s Odyssey). The Goddess Athena, fount of wisdom, took the form of Mentor to be available to advise Ulysses and his son through their difficult journey.

Study is based on the Latin studium meaning painstaking application” or “zeal, eagerness” and was related to Latin studere, “to be zealous.” This is the root of the words student, studio and studious. Surprisingly, the word’s earlier meaning was “affection, friendliness” (as used by Chaucer around 1374), an “occupation or pursuit,” and “a state of reverie; state of perplexity.” It gradually came to mean thought or effort that was applied toward the accomplishment of a purpose.

A group of children sitting in a classroom must sometimes look to the teacher like a collection of little dolls! And this is exactly what the term pupil means. The word originates from the Latin pupilla, meaning little doll. And where does this come from? The pupil of the eye reflects in miniature the image of the person looking into it. The other person sees himself or herself like a little doll in the other person’s eye; and this is why the black of the eye is called a pupil. Incidentally, the Hebrew term for the pupil of the eye is eshon ayin, or ‘little man in the eye’.

An absolutely delightful book – a compilation of stories about words that were once names of persons – is Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun by Willard R Espy (New York: Clarkson N Potter, 1978). One of the entries, for instance, tells the story behind the word mnemonics (any system designed to improve memory). Mnemosyne was the Greek goddess of memory, daughter of Uranus and Gaea and mother of the nine heavenly muses. Academe, on the other hand, traces its history to Academos, a man from Attica, which meant, ‘on the side of the people’. He was not particularly known for his learning, but better remembered for his role in carrying the news of Helen’s first kidnapping by Theseus, before she was carried off to Troy by Paris. However, the people of Athens named a beautiful garden in his memory, and this was the place where Plato opened a school for his followers – in the grove of Academe. And ever since, the word has become associated with higher learning.

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