A Place for Fun: On the Origins of School

Do you view school as a place of enjoyment? Is it the first place that pops into mind when you hear the word ‘fun’? This might seem like a strange question, but all will quickly become clear.

The word we use today to mean ‘place of learning/ teaching’ developed from a word in Old English, in which the word was scól. You may notice that the spelling is considerably different – they felt no need to put an H after the C. So why do we do that today, since the pronunciation would be the same without it?

The answer is that during the Renaissance, which was from the 14th to the 17th centuries, classical learning was very popular. By classical learning, people meant Latin and ancient Greek. People wanted to show off their scholarship, they wanted to display their knowledge of the origins of the word. So they put a C in ‘school’ to show their awareness that it came from Latin schola, which was borrowed originally from Greek σχολή [skhole].

The interesting thing is that in Latin, the word did not refer just to the place where people went to learn. It also meant ‘leisure time for learning’ as well as ‘debate, lecture’ and even ‘scholarly conversation’. So you can see that the meaning has narrowed down considerably over the centuries!

Let’s go now to the word in the original Greek: σχολή [skhole]. This word only came to mean what it does today by transferal, or association, if you prefer. It meant ‘spare time’ or also ‘leisure, rest, thing to do for fun’. So how on earth did it get from one meaning to the other? It is simple. In ancient Greece, learning was highly prized, and people would spend their spare time holding debates and discussions; this really was their idea of fun. Eventually, the word became associated less wih the activity and more with the place they went to carry it out. And as you can learn a lot through a discussion, especially with a knowledgeable person, the activity was seen more as learning than as ‘having fun’. Thus, the word was transferred from the activity to the place where it happened.

The word became extremely popular, and was borowed into many languages. It is used in French école, Spanish escuela, Welsh ysgol, Italian scuola, German Schule, Swedish skola as well as others. It seems a pity that it has lost its meaning of ‘leisure time activity’, but it is intriguing to note that there is still a word in Modern Greek today meaning ‘activity’ (ασχόληση [ascholisi]) which derives from σχολή. So who knows: if school is enjoyable, then perhaps this meaning will once again be associated with the word. Let’s hope the government gets the memo.

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4 thoughts on “A Place for Fun: On the Origins of School

  1. What wouldn’t I give to have, lived in a time and place where “holding debates and discussions; . . . really was their idea of fun.” Of course, we have that now, in a way, thanks to the interweb.

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