The Grammarphobia Blog

Master piece

Q: Yale is in an uproar about the use of “master” for the head of a residential college, given the term’s historical ties with slavery.  I wonder what you usage experts think of this. If you defend the usage, the PC/Language Police will jump all over your insensitivities.

A: We’ll try to be sensitive as well as sensible in writing about “master,” a term whose association with education dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

But first let’s look at the story behind your question. Although abolitionists at Yale vigorously opposed slavery, the university relied on slave-trading money in its early days and later named many buildings after slave traders or defenders of slavery.

In fact, the university’s namesake, Elihu Yale, had ties to the slave trade. And in the 20th century, Yale named several of its 12 residential colleges after slave owners, including John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician and white supremacist.

Since the mass shooting last June at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol, students, alumni, and faculty have pressed Yale to rename Calhoun College.

And Stephen Davis, the master of another residential college, Pierson, has asked that his title be dropped, saying no African American “should be asked to call anyone ‘master.’ ”

Now let’s look at the history of “master,” a word that by itself or in compounds has been used in an educational sense since the early days of Old English—many hundreds of years before the word showed up in reference to slavery in the US.

The term (spelled “mægster,” “magester,” or “magister” in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others; a director, leader, chief, commander; a ruler, governor.”

Oxford adds that “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

The use of “master” for a teacher showed up around the same time in Ælfred’s translation of De Consolatione Philosophiae, by Boethius. We’ve expanded this OED citation to give it context:

“Hwæt, we witon ðæt se unrihtwisa Neron wolde hatan his agenne magister, his fostorfæder ácwellan, þæs nama wæs Seneca; se wæs uðwita, þa he þa onfunde þa he dead bion.”

(“Do we not know that the wicked king Nero was willing to order that his own teacher and foster father, whose name was Seneca, a philosopher, be put to death?”)

Although the term usually referred to a man in Anglo-Saxon days, one of the earliest OED examples uses a feminine version for a woman who teaches.

The citation, using “magistra” for “magister,” is from an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that many scholars believe was sponsored, though not written, by King Ælfred.

In Middle English, the term’s meaning as well as spelling evolved to include scholar (early 1200s), holder of a senior degree (late 1300s), and presiding officer of a society, institution, college, etc. (late 1300s).

And in the 20th century, a “master teacher” came to mean one who was highly skilled or experienced.

(We’ve written posts in 2012 and 2015 about pluralizing “master’s degree,” and a post in 2010 about whether a woman is a “mistress of ceremonies” or a “master of ceremonies.”)

The OED’s earliest citation for the college sense of “master” that you’re asking about is from The Way to Wealth (1550), by the Protestant clergyman Robert Crowley: “A maister of an house in Oxforde or Cambridge.”

And its earliest example for “master” used to mean the owner of a slave is from an 1833 work by John Greenleaf Whittier: “A majority of the masters … are disposed to treat their … slaves with kindness.”

However, we’ve found several examples from the late 1700s for “master” used in reference to American slavery, including this one in Notes on the State of Virginia (1794), by Thomas Jefferson:

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

Getting back to your question, we don’t see any reason to avoid using “master” in such academic terms as “schoolmaster,” “master teacher,” “master’s degree,” “master of arts,” and “master” to mean the head of a college in the UK.

Should “master” also be used for the head of a residential college in the United States, a country that still bears the scars of its slave past?

Though etymologically blameless, the use of “master” for a college head may be hurtful to African Americans at Yale.

But Jonathan Holloway, an African American and the dean of Yale College, found it “deliciously ironic” when he served as the master of Calhoun.

“I worry about historical amnesia,” Holloway said in an article earlier this month in the New York Times. “But in the wake of the Charleston shooting, I found myself disillusioned.”

Should Yale give up its name because of its namesake’s profiting from slavery? “History is filled with ugliness,” he said, “and we can’t absolve ourselves of it by taking down something that offends us.”

What do we think? We agree with Holloway. We worry about etymological amnesia. Yale may be blamed for its past associations with the slave trade, but not for the use of “master” at its residential colleges.

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