The time is come around again: shoals of students appear in the hallowed, formerly hollow hallways of schools across the country. The youngest are wide-eyed oo; older ones stay cool as they scan their schedules. Some submit meekly, and some dive in enthusiastically, while others resist in ways passive or active. They are socialized in ways society finds expectable and acceptable, and may seek out opportunities for going against the grain. But for all it is an important part of their formation through information: they learn things that may not be self-evident, some of which may even be capriciously arbitrary, but they also learn to use their brains.

One of the things they learn is, of course, to spell – English spelling being so capricious as to be mocked in the reference to the elementary school trivium as the “three r’s” (reading, riting, and rithmetic). They may have heard this word school, but they couldn’t possibly predict its spelling from its pronunciation. In fact, they will certainly learn that sch as a rule is pronounced the same as sh, leading to mispronunciation of bruschetta and variant pronunciations of schism and schedule (thoroughly capricious words, neither of which having any actually good historical reason for having an h).

But they will learn that this word is pronounced /skul/; on the other hand, they are unlikely to learn that it comes from Greek σχολή scholé, and thence Latin schola, and has cognates in pretty much all Western European languages, most of which spell it without the h – as English also did until around 500 years ago, when the h was added back in, presumably because that’s how it is in Latin (idealized at the time and often since as the model language) and Dutch (native tongue of many of the early typesetters of English).

School is one of the earliest words kids will learn, so it will affect their perception of some other words, and it will have countless social accretions and collocations. Many of those will involve songs – old standards such as “School days, school days, good old golden rule days” or the one we sang on the bus home from the last day of school, “No more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” etc., or any of quite a lot of popular songs (songs by Supertramp and the Moody Blues spring to mind immediately for me; I wonder what today’s students associate musically with school).

There are also a few words that school may or may not make you think of but that might make you think of school: cool, skull (actually remarkably different for how similar it is), spool, stool, and snool (verb, “submit meekly” or “cause to submit meekly”; noun, “one who submits meekly”).

There are many words that show up commonly with school: before it, elementary, high, public, private, etc.; Sunday, business, medical, etc.; after it, year, bus, uniform, etc.; and of course verbs such as go to, finish, skip, and prepositions such as after, at, and in. The verbs and prepositions demonstrate a particular grammatical fact about school that native speakers have no trouble with but adult learners of English often find confusing: it can be a countable (at a school) or a mass object (at school). Sort of like fish.

Ah, yes, fish. As in a school of. Why are fish in schools? Lexical splitting and merging. On the one side we have this word descended from Greek and Latin and referring to a place of education; on the other side, and taking the form school just a couple of hundred years ago, we have a Germanic word with the same meaning and origin as shoalschool and shoal split apart at about the same time as school regained its h. That’s shoal as in “large group of marine life”; shoal as in “shallow area in the water” is of different origin, cognate with shallow. English words split and merge about as readily as high school romantic pairings.

Oh, yes. What do you remember from school, really? How much of the experience of the lessons? And how much of the social experience? We have school reunions to meet up with friends and to relive our fun times, not to review notes from our classes. But is not school work? It involves it, of a sort, but we ought to remember that school originally – and still, for some people in some places – is something one does instead of work. (In our society, grad school is certainly known as such.) You take your leisure time to learn something new and interesting – just as you are doing this very moment. After all, as you probably did not learn in school, Greek σχολή originally meant “leisure”.

3 responses to “school

  1. “. . . school originally [was] – and still, for some people in some places is — something one does instead of work.” And for generations of Englishmen, it was where many adults were employed who otherwise were unemployable: “If you can, do; and if you can’t, teach.” (The internet attributes this to George Bernard Shaw: “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.” I would have said that this idea, or at least the practice, went back a century or more before Shaw.) Certainly some of those who taught me, and those who taught alongside me, should have been otherwise employed … but others were a credit to their profession.

  2. Alice Cooper – School’s Out

  3. Pingback: murmuration | Sesquiotica

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