In a Word: Congratulations, Valedictorians and Salutatorians

The top two seniors in American high schools get fancy monikers, but do you know where those titles come from?


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Senior 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 high schools across America, seniors are heading into the final finals week of their secondary education and vying for that top spot in their school’s academic ranks. Traditionally, the highest-ranking student in the graduating class is named the valedictorian and earns the right to give a speech during the school’s commencement ceremonies. The second-ranked student, just edged out academically from the top spot, is the salutatorian, who in many schools also delivers a speech during commencement.

Both titles look great on college scholarship applications and even, a bit later, on résumés, but have you ever wondered where those titles come from?

Historically, the role of student speech-giver is paramount in both cases, but the purpose, subject, and even timing of those speeches has shifted. Let’s start with the valedictorian.

In Latin, vale is the equivalent of “goodbye” or “farewell.” Dicere is a Latin verb meaning “to say.” Combine the two, and we get the verb valedicere  “to bid farewell.” This gave us, in English, the valediction or valedictory speech — “a saying farewell.”

Given this information, you’ve probably jumped ahead with salutatorian: A common Latin greeting — the equivalent of “hello” — is salve, and the verb meaning “to greet” is salutare. From these roots we get the English salute as well as E.B. White’s spider Charlotte’s favorite greeting, salutations. A salutatory speech is one of greeting.

Thus, etymologically, a salutatorian is a greeter, and a valedictorian is a goodbye-sayer. And in early- to mid-19th-century American schools, that’s exactly the roles the salutatorian and valedictorian took: At the beginning of the ceremony, the salutatorian — usually the second-best student in the graduating class — would deliver a speech welcoming all those in attendance. And then after awards were given, hands shaken, and diplomas delivered, the valedictorian — the highest-scoring graduate academically — would deliver a farewell speech, literally saving the best for last.

Over time, the labels for these top two graduates stuck, but their original purposes during the commencement ceremony, inherent in the words salutatorian and valedictorian, were largely forgotten.

Except, perhaps, by those most likely to hold those positions.

Awarding these two titles is an American thing; you won’t find them in British or Australian schools. What’s more, most American universities have done away with them as well, instead selecting a student to give a commencement speech based not solely on grades but on wider measures of a successful college career.

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  1. Well, a lot of ugly water’s gone under the bridge on many of America’s screwed up campuses, with more to come I suspect, rendering the 2 featured words here obsolete, at least for now.

    That doesn’t change the fact this feature is wonderful and fascinating. Students that disagree can take selfie’s at the edges of the Grand Canyon.


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