Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
In this graduation season, when students and their families are celebrating an important academic milestone, the question asked in this article’s title might seem ridiculous. A diploma is something to be framed and prominently displayed, and the idea of folding it, of sullying it with a crease, is unthinkable to most. That reluctance, however, contradicts the word’s etymological roots.
The English diploma traces back to Greek diploma, originally indicating something like a license. The word was formed from the Greek diploun “to double, to fold over,” from di- meaning “two” (as in dilemma and diphthong) and ploos “fold.” Diploun is a verb, so to this base was added the suffix –oma to make it a noun.
A diploma is literally a paper folded in half. And in the beginning, that was an apt description. A magistrate, for example, might pen such a certificate and then fold that document in half and seal it with a wax seal, thus bestowing on that document all the authority of the magistrate.
Diploma came through Latin and found its way into English in the first half of the 17th century with the more generalized meaning of “an official or state document.” One sort of official document is from an institute of higher learning to a student who has completed their studies. By the 1680s, universities were giving their graduates diplomas, documents conferring a degree and, like a license, officially authorizing its holder to practice a profession.
But while this specialized sense of diploma was coming into use, the word continued to indicate a more general “official or state document.” Business relating to such documents, and to the affairs inherent in them, were described by the 1710s as diplomatic.
In French, the word was diplomatique, and toward the end of the 18th century — as the French Revolution was boiling to the surface — the word diplomate, for someone who performs diplomatic services, was created based on the earlier model of aristocrate from aristocratique. And all of this fell under the umbrella of diplomatie.
These became the English diplomacy (first recorded in print in 1793) and diplomat (in 1813), by this time referring to art and practice of international relations.
All from the simple idea of folding a paper in half.
Of course, as the warning at the top of this article indicates, a word’s etymology does not dictate what it means today. I highly discourage anyone from folding up their diploma and storing it away. And to all of this year’s graduates: Congratulations!
Bonus fact: Though the standard Modern English plural is diplomas, its Latin plural, diplomata, is also still acceptable, though snooty.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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