Grad titles traced to 1759


Q I have a few graduations to go to in May, and it got me wondering about when the first speeches by valedictorians and salutatorians were given. – C.S., Stoughton, Mass.

A: Valedictory and salutatory addresses delivered by earnest, young graduates at high school and college commencement ceremonies are as much a rite of spring in the United States as Memorial Day. While we cannot say where the first valedictory address was given, we can say that the word “valedictorian” is an Americanism that was first recorded in use in 1759. English speakers and writers have also used “valedictory” in non-academic settings since the mid-1600s. Since a valedictory speech is given at the end of an academic career, it is perfectly in keeping with the meaning of its Latin ancestor, the verb “valedicere,” which means “to say farewell.”

The word “salutatorian” was first recorded in 1847. The salutatorian has the second highest rank of the graduating class, and his or her speech precedes that of the first-ranked valedictorian. “Salutatorian” and “salutatory,” like the related words”salute” and “salutation,” are derived from the Latin verb “salutare,” which means “to address with expressions of kind wishes, courtesy, or honor.”

Q Please settle an argument between my father and me. What is the correct plural of “virus”? Since it’s from the Latin, shouldn’t it be “viri” and not “viruses”? – R.B., Northampton, Mass.

A: The plural of the English word “virus” is in fact “viruses,” much to the dismay of Latin fans everywhere. It is true, of course, that our “virus” has its roots in the Latin word “virus,” but when we borrowed the word into our language in the 1500s it became a fully English word following English rules of inflection and grammar.

The result was a change in pronunciation (from the Medieval Latin “VEE-roos” to something closer to the Modern English “VYE-russ”) and a change in plural inflection (from the Latin “-i” to the English “-es”).

This naturalization process didn’t happen to all Latin-based words (witness “oculus” and its plural “oculi”). Why? Beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries, advances in learning exposed more people to Latin and Greek than had been exposed before, and more Latin words, particularly, were taken into English. The relative tidiness of the two classical languages was appealing, and through the influence of some grammarians, a few of these Latin borrowings kept their Latinate plurals.

In addition, many words originating in medicine are derived from something called New Latin, a type of Latin that has been used since the end of the Middle Ages specifically for scientific classification and descriptions. Some of these New Latin words are inflected like Classical and Medieval Latin words were – though a good number acquired fully English inflected forms as well. “Abscissa” is a good example: this New Latin word has both the Latinate plural “abscissae” and the Anglicized plural “abscissas.”


Q My sister says that “cutting-room floor” is a phrase from the textile industry, but I say it’s from the movie industry. Who’s right? – V.R., West Bend, Wis.

A: You are. “Cutting-room floor” is an expression from the movie industry that refers to the room in which films are edited. During the traditional editing process, raw film is trimmed, rearranged, and sometimes dramatically cut. Entire scenes – and actors – can evaporate from a movie during this process, and the expression has moved beyond the movie industry to apply to the place where rejected pieces of any project go. As digital editing becomes more ubiquitous in the industry, the expression is becoming increasingly figurative.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.