Word of the day: campus

July 15, 2009

A few days ago when walking across campus I remembered Rome.  This happens from time to time.  In this case I thought particularly of the Campo de’ Fiori — the Field of Flowers — which in turn made me reflect that the word campus is just Latin for “field”.  I had not noticed that before.  I mentioned as much to my wife, and she remarked that the words company and companion were perhaps also related, and considering that each has a vaguely military connection she speculated that campus might have originally meant something like “field of battle”.  Not to be left out, our daughter interjected with “Gaa!”  At that, I gave thanks for them both, and I resolved to look into the matter further when I had access to a good dictionary.

Once home I hauled out the OED, cracked it open, and blew the dust from the musty, time-worn pages.  Sure enough, campus means “field”.  Interestingly, the word’s first recorded use was as late as 1774, when it was used to describe the grounds of Princeton University.  “Having made a fire in the Campus, we there burnt near a dozen pounds [of tea].”  (From the beginning, it seems, the university campus was a place of wild debauchery.)

It is probably not surprising to learn that campaign is a related word, which we have borrowed from French, where it also meant “field” or “countryside”.  Its military sense derives from the fact that armies used to “take the field” for training and operations.  Its political sense intimates that those seeking political office should be “put out to pasture”.

The word company, however, appears to have a separate etymology.  Both it and companion come from Latin (com-panis) via Old French (compaignon), meaning someone with whom (com-) one shares bread (panis).

You are probably thinking that campanology, campaniliform, and similar words must also be related.  However, these are derived from the Latin campana (bell), and I have been unable to discover a connection with our word of the day.

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7 Responses to “Word of the day: campus”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    I believe that the original Campus must be Cannon Green (supported by the OED quote from 1879), where they hold a bonfire each year in which they defeat both Harvard and Yale at football. But debauchery? Surely you’re joking.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Joking? I don’t know, Adam. Burning tea in quantity is reckless behaviour, and could easily tip over into a full-fledged bacchanal.

  3. Matthew Says:

    What’s important is that Campo dei Fiori is no longer the field of flowers it was in Roman times but now has a bustling farmer’s market in the mornings and a thriving bar business in the afternoons and evenings. You can even leave your hat unattended on a seat at a bar for over an hour and go back to find that it’s still there. At least you could a month ago. :)

  4. cburrell Says:

    I’ll try to swallow my envy, Matthew, and simply remark that Campo de’ Fiori seems to be on the vanguard of that tradition, now so well entrenched in North American suburbs, of naming a place after what was there before the developers moved in. :)

  5. Janet Says:

    It’s funny, I distinctly remember thinking about the use and etymology of the word “campus” a couple of days ago. I’m trying to remember where I was, but I can only remember walking up the steps to a big building that had the word written on it.

    AMDG, Janet (not meant in a overly pious way)

  6. KathyB Says:

    Might the burning of tea be related to the Boston tea party and the onset of the American revolution? In which case, the university campus has long been a place not only of debauchery, but also of political protest.

  7. cburrell Says:

    In my experience of campus politics, the two are often one and the same.


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