Q: The Morrises say “Ivy League” comes from the 19th century, when a football league comprising four schools was designated the “IV League.” This sounds too good to be true. As arbiters of usage, what say you?
A: The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (2d ed., 1988), written by William and Mary Morris, presents two theories about the origin of the phrase “Ivy League”—one that it describes as “the more widely accepted” and that we accept too, and one that it calls “fairly plausible” and that we consider an etymological myth.
Let’s look at the facts first. (We’ll discuss the myth briefly later on.)
The term “Ivy League” showed up in writing in the 1930s as a noun phrase for a group of eight long-established colleges and universities in the eastern US: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. In early examples, the phrase was used figuratively for an unofficial sports league representing the colleges.
Most of the dictionaries we’ve consulted trace the usage to the ivy growing on older college buildings. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, explains it this way: “So called because of the ivy-covered older college buildings.”
In fact, the adjective “ivied” and the noun “ivy” were used much earlier to describe the walls of colleges and universities.
Here’s an “ivied” example from “A Reasonable Doubt,” a poem in the January 1888, issue of the Haverfordian, a literary magazine at Haverford College:
“When, from the ivied College Hall / The lights begin to glimmer, / And forth they stroll at even-fall / To watch the starlight shimmer.”
And this “ivy” example, from Red and Black, a 1919 novel by the American writer Grace S. Richmond, describes a country doctor as he prepares to leave for a college reunion:
“He had his ticket and a sleeper reservation—it was fifteen hours’ journey back to the old ivy-covered halls which had grown dearer in his memory with each succeeding year of his absence.”
The earliest known use of the phrase “ivy college,” according to The Yale Book of Quotations, is from an Oct. 14, 1933, football article by Stanley Woodward in the New York Tribune:
“A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.”
The first written example we’ve seen for “Ivy League” used in reference to the eight colleges is in the headline and text of a Feb. 7, 1935, Associated Press sports article that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.
Headline: “Brown Seems To / Have Been Taken / Into ‘Ivy League.’ ” First paragraph: “The so-called ‘Ivy League’ which is in the process of formation among a group of the older eastern universities now seems to have welcomed Brown into the fold and automatically assumed the proportions of a ‘big eight.’ ”
All the examples for “Ivy League” in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 1930s and ’40s use the term in the sense of a sports league. But by the early 1950s, the citations show, the phrase was being used to identify the colleges collectively and to describe the characteristics of the group or the characteristics of its students and graduates.
Here are two OED examples for the new senses from J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye (1951): “My father wants me to go to Yale, or maybe Princeton, but I swear, I wouldn’t go to one of those Ivy League colleges” … “The jerk had one of those very phoney, Ivy League voices, one of those very tired, snobby voices.”
Although the eight colleges had competed against each other in various sports since the 19th century (some since the mid-1800s), it wasn’t until 1945 that their presidents signed the first Ivy Group Agreement, setting academic, financial, and athletic standards for football teams. In 1954, the presidents voted to extend the agreement to all intercollegiate sports.
As for the myth you asked about, the Morrises cite a single Columbia College graduate as the source of the erroneous belief that the phrase “Ivy League” is derived from the use of a Roman numeral in the phrase “IV League” in reference to a 19th-century sports league that included four teams: Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton.
We haven’t found a single written example of “IV League” in newspapers and books from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Representatives of the four schools did meet on Nov. 23, 1876, in Springfield, MA, and agreed on rules for football, according to Football, the American Game (1917), by the football historian Parke Hill Davis. Three of the schools formed The Intercollegiate Football Association, but Yale didn’t join.
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