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Why is it Called a Bachelor’s Degree?

bachelors degree

Upon first hearing the word "bachelor" today, many people automatically think of an unmarried man. Some may even go so far as to imagine a single guy hosting elaborate parties in a decked out apartment filled with extravagant furnishings and the most up-to-date, technological goodies. So, when did the term bachelor become associated with the formal degree earned by a college graduate?  Is there a link between the two? Are parents really sending their kids to get an education in the single life?  To answer these questions and resolve any growing concern, let’s look at the origins of the degree and the term’s etymology.

While the first universities have been traced to seventh century India, the bachelor’s degree did not appear in its common form until the emergence of the medieval university. Students matriculating at these institutions entered into a three to four year study of the Liberal Arts, with a particular focus on the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Upon completion and passage of proper examinations, candidates received a degree in the bachelor of the arts—where bachelor refers to the Latin term, baccalaureus, for young squire or knight.

When looking at the Latin etymology more closely, the word "bachelor" reveals a strong connection to baccalaria, the Latin term for "a division of land."  In fact, the adjectives, baccalarius and baccalaria, respectively describe male and female laborers who worked on the land. As society progressed, labor became specialized into distinct categories based on skill level, and so the word’s meaning evolved too.

By the 13th century, the word was used in both Latin and English to refer to "a young knight or squire," but was given the French spelling bacheler. By the time the 14th century arrived, "bachelor" referred to a junior member of a guild or knight.  Around this same period, an alternate spelling, bachiler, came to mean "an apprentice student," or a student completing an initial level of training.  It was from this usage of the word that came the meaning of a young man in the service or working as an apprentice to a knight or skillsman in order to gain greater knowledge of a field.  Individuals of this status were not considered to have a mastery of the given field of study.  Furthermore, as young, untrained squires, many men did not have the time or the means to marry. Cultural norms of both class and gender made it highly uncommon for a female to enter into such an apprenticeship.  Thus, one can see how this one word took on multiple meanings.

To grasp the final transformation, we must take a brief look at the common equivalent to the bachelor’s degree: baccalaureate. The term baccalaureate originated from the 17th century Latin word baccalaureus, meaning "student with the first degree." In fact, baccalaureus is actually play on the Latin phrase for "laurel berries," or bacca lauri.   Laurel berries were presented as a prize at the Pythian Games, an athletic competition of ancient Greece.  Since this occasion, wreaths of laurels have been associated with great honor and academic achievement.

With its final spelling appearing in the 18th century, the term "bachelor" has experienced a long journey to its modern form.  Common to the etymology world, the word picked up a variety of meanings along the way. Therefore, as you contemplate the meaning of your bachelor’s degree, there is no reason to question its legitimacy as an academic document—even despite its peculiar name.  It is all in the etymology.

RandomHouse.com. (2000).  The mavens’ word of the day: Bachelor’s degree. Retrieved August 2007, from http://www.randomhouse.com Online Etymology Encyclopedia. (2001). Baccalaureate. Retrieved August 2007, from http://www.etymonline.com

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