Q: On this morning’s news show, someone said people should “educate” themselves on the dearth of women in computer science. To my mind, people should “inform,” not “educate,” themselves on issues. Am I wrong?
A: In modern English, the verb “educate” can mean either to teach or to inform, so one can be educated in the field of computer science as well as on the issue of women in computer science.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives these two definitions: (1) “to teach (someone) especially in a school, college, or university,” and (2) “to give (someone) information about something.”
However, “educate” didn’t mean either to teach or to inform when the verb first showed up in English in the 1400s.
It originally meant to bring up a child “so as to form his or her manners, behaviour, social and moral practices, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
English adopted the usage from educare, Latin for to rear children or young animals.
The OED’s earliest example is from a 1445 translation in Middle English of a Late Latin elegy, Claudian’s De Consulatu Stilichonis: As grete cure also thou haddist his brothir to mayntene / To educate and to brynge forthe.
In the early 1500s, the verb took on its modern sense of to teach someone at a school, college, or university.
The first Oxford citation is from a 1536 act by King Henry VIII: “Where yowth and good wyttes be educate and norysshed.”
In the late 1700s, the verb “educate” took on its sense of to inform.
The earliest OED example is from The Quartern Loaf for Eight-Pence (1795), a pamphlet by the pseudonymous Jack Cade: “This must spur you on to the most daring exploits to educate the public mind.”
(Bread was commonly sold in the 18th and 19th centuries as a quartern loaf, which was made from 3.5 pounds of wheat flour. The author of the pamphlet apparently took his pen name from the leader of the Jack Cade Rebellion in 15th-century England.)