I noticed a now-fading distinction in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1965):
Those who attend elementary schools are pupils; those who attend higher institutions of learning (high schools may be included among these) are students.Pupil seems to belong with chalkboard and filmstrip and lunchroom in some school of the past (where I was a pupil). At any rate, Google shows student enjoying wider use:
“elemetary school students”: 4,230,000But why pupil anyway? Like any unexamined word suddenly examined, it looks a bit odd. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate explains:
“elementary school student”: 1,190,000
“elementary school pupils”: 3,550,000
“elementary school pupil”: 390,000
1 : a child or young person in school or in the charge of a tutor or instructor : STUDENTM-W dates the word to 1536. Related words, as you might suspect: puppet (1538), puppy (1567), and pupa (1815).
2 : one who has been taught or influenced by a famous or distinguished person
Middle English pupille minor ward, from Anglo-French, from Latin pupillus male ward (from diminutive of pupus boy) & pupilla female ward, from diminutive of pupa girl, doll
But why does pupil also mean (since 1567) “the contractile aperture in the iris of the eye”? M-W explains:
Middle French pupille, from Latin pupilla, from diminutive of pupa doll; from the tiny image of oneself seen reflected in another’s eyeThe explanation smacks of folk etymology, but it’s for real. The Oxford English Dictionary corroborates: “so called on account of the small reflected image seen when looking into someone’s pupil.” Thus John Donne in “The Good-Morrow”:
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appeares,And thus James Bond in Goldfinger, where a reflection in Bonita’s eye saves Bond from a blackjack to the head.
And true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest.
[In choosing between pupil and student, consider: which word confers greater dignity on children?]