Stupid Question ™
April 6, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: How did “bachelor” come to mean both an unmarried man and a college degree?
A: Remember that the degree isn’t called a “bachelor,” it’s called a “bachelor’s degree.” It is the student, not the degree, who is the bachelor.
And whether in terms of college or marriage, “bachelor” is a term of social rank and standing.
English borrowed the word around 1300 from Old French as a term for a knight too young and/or powerless to have his own retinue, and who therefore was another knight’s lackey. The title “Knight Bachelor” is still sometimes used for knights who belong to low or unnamed knightly orders.
Early on, the term was transferred to university students who had attained the first, and lowest, degree of education—someone who wasn’t yet a “master” of their field (or the seven Arts, in those days).
Since bachelor knights and bachelor students were almost universally young men, it wasn’t much of a stretch to call any unmarried young man (and eventually, an unmarried man of any age) a “bachelor.”
Further reflecting the idea of rank, the word also enjoyed a stint as a term for a junior member of a trade guild.
Where the French got the word in the first place is still uncertain. It may go back to medieval Latin baccalaria, a division of land, which in turn may go back to late Latin bacca, from vacca, meaning “cow.”
“Bachelor” would relate to baccalaria through baccalarius (or feminine baccalaria), which was a very early term for a rustic who worked the land of a higher lord. (Seems particularly appropriate for ag college degrees.) Some authors also see a dubious relation to Celtic bachlach, meaning “shepherd” or “peasant” (from bachall, “staff”).
Our Latinized term for the degree—baccalaureate—does seem to relate to (if not derive directly from) baccalarius. Etymologists think that in medieval universities (where Latin was the scholarly language), the degree was called a baccalarius, then altered to baccalaureus as, of all things, a pun.
Baccalarius sounds quite a bit like bacca lauri, which translates literally as “laurel berry.” Since the Romans used laurel wreaths as symbols of triumph and success, this might have made an irresistible pun to medieval scholars, who then changed the spelling of the word to reflect the double meaning.
So when you look at that diploma on your wall, remember: It not only likens you to an impotent knight; it’s a condescending joke, too!