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Some guy claims that

I'll tell you why graduation is called Commencement (and no, it's not because it's the beginning of your "real life"). In the large halls where students and faculty ate, the faculty used to eat at table on a raised platform at one end of the long line of tables at which the students sat. When the students finished their course of study and graduated, they became fully-fledged members of the University and equals of the faculty. Consequently, at the grand banquet with which they celebrated their graduation, faculty and former students (both the newly-graduated and alumni) ate together as equals. They shared tables, or, in the Latin of the time, they ate at a commensa, a common table for all. This is why, not so long ago, Commencement and Reunion took place at the same time and why the University Dinner was the high point of the graduation events. (Source)

True? And if not, what is the correct etymology for Commencement?

  • Perhaps, it should have been spelled commensement with an s instead, if ever such a word is used in that sense. – Kris Dec 16 '14 at 13:48
  • commensal from Latin: com- + mensa, meaning "same table". commence from Latin: com- + initiare, meaning "to begin together. The original meaning of cominitiare in Latin was "to initiate as a priest", so the graduation meaning of "commencement" is actually closer to the original than the word "commence" meaning "begin". – Peter Shor Dec 16 '14 at 13:48
  • @PeterShor That doesn't resolve the issue, though. How did the s become a c then? – Kris Dec 16 '14 at 13:49
  • @Kris: cominitiare and commensalis were two different words in Latin with different meanings and different roots. The first turned into commence and the second commensal. The 't' became a 'c', not the 's'. – Peter Shor Dec 16 '14 at 13:52
  • @PeterShor That's right. I wonder how that helps here. The arguments run parallel, right? – Kris Dec 16 '14 at 13:55
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I can find no source supporting the theory you propose. It seems unlikely for several reasons:

1) "Commencement" is a long-established word that has always had the meaning of "a beginning"; it's listed in the Middle English Dictionary with that definition with citations going back to 1275.

2) I have found no references to a meaning of "commencement" having to do with eating at a common table, although some dictionaries list words such as "commensality" or "commensation" for that concept, usually as later neologisms.

3) Also in the Middle English Dictionary, one definition given for the verb "commencen," to commence, is "To enter upon the office or privileges of a master or doctor in a university after completing a course of study."

This is the most reasonable definition. In the medieval university, you didn't study to get a degree so that you could leave the school to work for a management consultancy; you studied so that you could become a member of the University. In effect, every student at the university was in an apprenticeship to become a professor. When you finished your studies, you were ready to begin--to commence--your academic career.

This is supported by every source I've seen that considers the question. Here's what Harvard has to say:

The word reflects the meaning of the Latin inceptio (“beginning”), the name given the ceremony of initiation for new scholars into the fellowship of university teachers in medieval Europe. The event marked the commencement or “inception” of their full-fledged academic lives.

In order for the proposed alternative etymology to be plausible, we would need some evidence that "commencement" was used in this context to refer to a table, or that a table was important in these ceremonies. None exists. Occam's Razor says that, yes, it's because it is a beginning, although it originally referred not to the beginning of a life outside the University, but to the beginning of a life within it.

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comm-encement is a compunded latin rooted word (americans have no clue why), A compund word means to put together by combining words that combine to form a whole. In the english speaking world, at bare sight the word comm-encement would not have much of a meaning because it is not a latin base language at the chore. Thus the first part of comm-encement is as follows::. from Latin com: It is a word-forming element literally meaning "with, together. from Medieval Latin comm-ensalis, from com- "together" in the archaic form of classical Latin cum means "together, together with, in combination," The latter part:: encement From latin in-ire(verb) and in-itiare or in-itium(noun) meaning "to initiate, a beginning, an entrance," in-ire means "to go into, enter upon, begin," from in- "into, in + ire "to go" In conclusion, the words commencement and commence (which is latin for com-+initiare) convey the same meaning as "to begin together" and in my humble observation it literally means "to iniciate together" -Alejandro Grace Ararat

It is fundamental not to make suppositions of latin based words just because they look similar as it is the case of commensal which is a different compud word with a different meaning and root. Enjoy the ""initiate together ceremony" and smile:), Another observation is thatin spanish and latin we would not ascribe such ceremony as the english speaking does although I can see why they wanted to be clever by repudiating the latin and going with the french sounding one not knowing the french use a high percentage of latin based words.- Alejandro Graace Ararat

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    Welcome to ELU, Alejandro. You seem to be barking up the right tree, but your answer could be improved greatly by citing the sources of your research, explaining the change in the prefix spelling, removing the derogatory comments, and reformatting for accuracy and clarity. We prefer standard capitalization and punctuation. For example: the names of languages are commonly capitalized. – ScotM May 23 '15 at 14:53

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