Q: Could you tell me the origin of the compound word “schoolteacher”? What is the reason for the redundancy? My first thought was that the phrase distinguished schoolteachers from Sunday school teachers. I later theorized that it might’ve come from the Germanic preference for compounds.
A: We wouldn’t call “schoolteacher” redundant. We think of a schoolteacher as someone who teaches in elementary, middle, or high school. However, not all standard dictionaries make that distinction.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “schoolteacher” as we do: a “person who teaches in a school below the college level.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), defines it simply as “one who teaches school.”
Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s define “teacher” loosely as someone who’s hired to teach. So a teacher may give piano lessons in a student’s home or lead a university seminar on literary theory (though we might use “professor” for the literary theorist).
The earliest citation for “schoolteacher” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Reliquæ Baxterianæ (1696), the autobiography of the Puritan clergyman Richard Baxter:
“The third sort is School-Teachers, which is not my Case (though I have also a License to Teach School).”
In discussing the etymology of the term, the OED points the reader to an earlier usage, “to teach school,” which showed up in a 1590 letter by the Elizabethan writer Christopher Ockland: “I teach schole at Grenewych.”
But we suspect that the term “schoolteacher” may have also been influenced by two even earlier terms, “schoolmaster” (circa 1225) and “schoolmistress” (1335).
Two other early influences may have been the Old French tenir escoles (c. 1200) or the Middle French tenir escole (1366), verb phrases meaning to teach. In medieval Latin, according to the OED, scholam tenere meant to run a school and scholas tenere meant to “engage in academic disputation.”
The source of all these usages is, of course, the word “school,” which ultimately comes from the classical Latin schola or scola, which referred to a teacher’s lecture on a subject or the place where the teacher lectured.
In medieval Latin, schola came to mean, among other things, a group of people of the same profession, the sense the word had when it showed up in early Old English spelled scola. (It’s also spelled scolu and scole in Old English manuscripts.)
The first OED example of the word used to mean an “institution for the formal education of children” is from Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints, believed to have been written in the late 990s: “Eac þær leornode on þære ylcan scole se æðela Gregorius” (“Also there learned in the same school the noble Gregory”).
The word “teacher”—derived from tǽc(e)an, to teach in Old English—first showed up in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible: “Oon of hem, a techer of the lawe, axede Jhesus, temptynge hym.”
In case you’re curious, Wycliffe’s use of “axede” for “asked” here is an example of an old usage that’s now considered nonstandard. As we wrote on the blog back in 2008, this wasn’t always the case.