Friday, August 5, 2011

Word of the day: pupil

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”: 4,230,000
“elementary school student”: 1,190,000

“elementary school pupils”: 3,550,000
“elementary school pupil”: 390,000
But why pupil anyway? Like any unexamined word suddenly examined, it looks a bit odd. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate explains:
1 : a child or young person in school or in the charge of a tutor or instructor : STUDENT
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
M-W dates the word to 1536. Related words, as you might suspect: puppet (1538), puppy (1567), and pupa (1815).

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 eye
The 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 true plaine hearts doe in the faces rest.
And thus James Bond in Goldfinger, where a reflection in Bonita’s eye saves Bond from a blackjack to the head.

[In choosing between pupil and student, consider: which word confers greater dignity on children?]

comments: 6

normann said...

The pupil/student distinction still applies in UK English, and thus mid-Atlantic English (the language I translate into). Every European language I know distinguishes them. In Norwegian, student is someone qualified to study at postsecondary level; everyone else is an elev, including someone who has studied under another, e.g. X is Professor Y's "student" in US English, but his elev in Norwegian.

Michael Leddy said...

Norman, thanks for adding international context here.

Joshua L. Lyle said...

Dignifying the subjects of modern authoritarian pedagogy with the appellation "student" sounds offensively euphemistic, when you state it as you have.

Michael Leddy said...

Well, there’s all kinds of pedagogy. I am responsible only for my own.

Anonymous said...

It is very sad, but this valuable nuance is disappearing in English. I really hate it. Since the prevailing view is that there be no rules, and that what people speak are the rules (versus prescription) then there can be only one end to this - and the pupil/student distinction will disappear.

I concur that the distinction remains here in Norway. Pupil ought to be, in my opinion, a minor or else someone under the direct instruction of a tutor (hence a music student will be a pupil of this or that teacher). Student implies a slightly different relationship, something you are doing because you want to, not because you are the "charge" of another.

The saddest thing about the current fashion to call pupils "students" is that, while it undoubtedly is done because it sounds nicer, and more respectful - it actually does the young people a great disservice. Now, if and when they go on to higher education after school, and become *students*, there will be nothing special or different to their status any more.

I mourn the passing of the word "pupil" for all minors in education.

Michael Leddy said...

Though I am happy with student, I usually like to keep distinctions and nuances in play (say, disinterested and uninterested, but not, say, poet and poetess). Thanks for taking the time to argue for the usefulness of the pupilstudent distinction.