The word 'College' is presumably related to Collegial and Colleague, originally referring to a group of professionals (not necessarily having anything to do with teaching). When did it change meaning entirely to mean a school where people get an undergraduate degree? This seems like quite a reversal.

Addition: based on a comment, the word 'college' seemed to shift from referring to the people involved, to the institution. This is reminiscent of the word 'church'. I wonder if there is a general term for this sort of shift? It also strikes the chord of how in the UK, a corporation or other body of people is primarily thought of as a set of individuals and in the USA it means a single entity. Maybe we are on to something here...

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    College: "body of scholars and students within a university," late 14c., from Old French college "collegiate body" (14c.), from Latin collegium "community, society, guild," literally "association of collegae" (see colleague). At first meaning any corporate group, the sense of "academic institution" attested from 1560s became the principal sense in 19c. via use at Oxford and Cambridge. etymonline.com/index.php?term=college&allowed_in_frame=0 – user66974 Jul 7 '16 at 19:07
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    In the United Kingdom, "college" can refer to either sixth form in the context of secondary education, or a constituent part of a university in the context of higher education. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/College – user66974 Jul 7 '16 at 19:14
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    @Josh61 +1 for intelligent and informed responses to a, um... question. – Mark Hubbard Jul 7 '16 at 19:15
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    sixth form; gymnasium – Cascabel Jul 7 '16 at 20:30
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    God bless America. – Cascabel Jul 7 '16 at 21:02

The OED's earliest entries for college are of

An organized society of persons performing certain common functions and possessing special rights and privileges; a body of colleagues, a guild, fellowship, association

as in John Wyclif's The Clergy May Not Hold Property, ca. 1380:

criste and his colage myȝt not be dispensid wiþ

in reference to the Apostles. Not long thereafter are found examples of its use to refer to any collective body, for example in John Capgrave's mid-15th century Life of Saint Katherine, at 1821:

O Ihesu most swettest, whiche hast noumbred me Right in þi college a-mongis þi maydenes alle

Prominent among the various colleges in British society at the time were communities or corporations formed for mutual support: houses for clergy, for instance, or almshouses. An example given is Morden College, originally "an asylum for decayed merchants." In Chambers' Cyclopædia, similarly,the entry for Colleges for disabled Soldiers, Seamen &c. is a simple cross-reference: See Hospitals.

And so we find the OED's first entry for college as a community of scholars as follows:

  1. A society of scholars incorporated within, or in connection with, a University, or otherwise formed for purposes of study or instruction:
    a. esp. An independent self-governing corporation or society (usually founded for the maintenance of poor students) in a University, as the College of the Sorbonne in the ancient University of Paris, and the ancient colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
    b. A foundation of the same kind, outside a University. (Often combining, in its original character, the functions of a local charity for the aged and of eleemosynary education for the young.)

(emphasis added). The earliest English-language entry given here is from about 1530: In the Unyversyte Off Oxynfurde scho gert be A collage fowndyt, in Andrew of Wyntoun's Ðe orygynale cronykil of Scotland.

Thence came the other meanings of college related to academia: as a synonym for university education in Scotland and the U.S. (as I note elsewhere), as subdivisions of universities, as institutions of advanced training, as buildings occupied by any of those bodies, and so forth.

  • So, once again, what began by referring to a group of individuals, ended referring to an institution. Is there a name for this? It seems to go on quite a lot. When the old and new meanings are both used, it seems rather ludicrous, like calling a group of people a building. (Or insisting that a corporation is a group of people, but I don't want to start a war.) You also indicate that 'college' went on to refer not just to a place, but a condition: education generally, or someone enrolled in a college ("college student"). These are yet more abstract. – user126158 Jul 7 '16 at 20:43
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    It would seem to be straightforward metonymy to me, but I am not well-versed in all the classsifications of semantic shift. – choster Jul 7 '16 at 22:03
  • George Orwell apparently said that we were making a hash of language and that it was affecting our ability to think. Perhaps he was right? – user126158 Jul 8 '16 at 14:02

During medieval times (500 - 1500), guilds were being formed in and around cities and towns. These guilds were composed of many different areas of work. Teaching during this period began specifically with Cathedral schools in which the teachers were priests/Bishops. Eventually, these places experienced an influx of students which led to the creation of specific buildings and campi for large amounts of students. These were considered to be a guild of their own and were called "Universitas." This is where we get our word "University". In 1088 the first "Universitas" in Bologna, Italy was given a charter by Emperor Fredrick I making it an official guild that was to be accepted in the community.

I know this doesn't really answer your question, but I hope it gives you some insight to a synonym for college that would eventually lead to the words formation.


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