At first, I thought graduate meant college student, but it actually means undergraduate. Graduate should appear before undergraduate, like undergraduate is born from the word 'graduate'. But graduate is advanced academy of undergraduate. Someone help?

  • Some prefixes mean before; just because you derive word A from word B doesn't mean A should come after B in a temporal sense. Preschool is derived from school but preschool comes before school. – oerkelens Jul 21 '16 at 8:59

A "graduate" is someone who has completed a college degree, typically in four years, and who has "moved on".

An "undergraduate" is someone who has not completed said college degree, but is only "aspiring" to. This person is "under" a graduate; hence the term, undergraduate.

A "college student" is someone who is currently "in" college, as opposed to having "moved on." This describes an undergraduate.

A "college student" can also refer to a "graduate student" who has "returned" to college, after having "graduated" with a first degree. But many people leave college altogether and "go to work" after graduation.

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  • Good explanation, but I'm not sure why in and go to work are in quotation marks. – J.R. Jul 21 '16 at 9:27
  • @J.R.: I wanted to make a distinction between in and out of college, with "go to work" being "out." – Tom Au Jul 21 '16 at 9:31

It is an old usage that derives form the meaning of "under", that is "inferior in rank, position, degree" and "graduate":


  • early 15c., "one who holds a degree".


  • Productive as a prefix in Old English, as in German and Scandinavian (often forming words modeled on Latin ones in sub-). Notion of "inferior in rank, position, etc." was present in Old English. With reference to standards, "less than in age, price, value," etc., late 14c. As an adjective, "lower in position; lower in rank or degree" from 13c.


  • 1620s, a hybrid formed from under + graduate (n.). British used fem. form undergraduette in 1920s-30s. As an adjective, in the school sense, from 1680s.


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