This time of year means not only summer and sunshine, but another ray of light: graduation. If you're a senior, it's time to move on.
Graduation brings hopes, fears, dreams, regrets, and relatives to the surface. It's a momentous occasion. Here are few of the words often found in the days before and after the graduation ceremony, hidden under mortarboards and robes.
For a complete list of graduation-ology, check out: A Graduation Lexicon
When something commences, it begins. The sense of graduation as a new beginning is why a graduation ceremony is also known as commencement. You don't hear variations of commence much outside of schools, but if you wanted to sound very official (and maybe a little pompous) you could start a meal or game of Pictionary by saying, "Let us commence!"
Graduation isn't just about finishing high school: it's all about the ceremony, which is a type of ritual involving specific traditions. Graduates have to wear a weird robe, put on a strange cap (called a mortarboard), and receive your diploma from the principal in front of the whole school. The graduation is a theatrical occasion meant to celebrate this major event in your life: other major ceremonies in life are weddings and funerals. We don't tend to have a ceremony for grabbing a burger or walking the dog.
When you graduate from high school, it's a great accomplishment, and your family is going to want to celebrate. That means you might have all sorts of relatives show up. Relative is, pardon the expression, a relatively broad term, covering everyone from parents and siblings to fifth cousins, great-aunts, and great-great-grandmothers. If someone is part of your family, they're a relative—even if they're not related by blood. Spouses and adopted children of blood relatives are your relatives too.
Some people are a little shy about big ceremonies, so they don't attend graduation, meaning they don't show up. Fortunately, attendance is a lot more important before graduation than during. There’s an old cliché that, like many clichés, has some truth: Half of life is just showing up. That's what teachers generally think when it comes to attendance: being present for something, in that case, class. When teachers take attendance, they check to see who's there, which is often called roll call. When you go to class (or anywhere for that matter) you attend. You can attend a party, concert, or speech, but if you don't attend most of your classes, you won't even have the option of attending graduation.
In high school, students who make really good grades end up on the honor roll, which can lead to graduating with honors. Very good students might also get the chance to take honors classes: smaller, special classes designed for students who are a little more talented and/or motivated than average. There are also honors classes in college, and getting into any such class is an honor: in other words, a distinction and privilege. A famous saying of actors who are up for Academy Awards is "It's an honor just to be nominated." That means something along the lines of: "Aw shucks, thanks for thinking of me, and I'll try not to make too sour a face on camera if I don't win."
Graduating with honors is impressive, but there's an even greater honor: to be the valedictorian. This is the student with the best grades in the entire school. Not much looks better on a college application than being valedictorian of your high-school class. The valedictorian is usually asked to speak during commencement: this is sometimes called a valedictory address.
This word is one of the happiest word in English, and it's one of the most commonly heard at graduation time. Some people even get cute and say congraduations. Other occasions for congratulations include getting married, having a child, landing a new job, publishing a book, or walking on the moon. Buzz Aldrin is still getting congratulated for that.
The master of ceremonies at graduation is usually the principal: the person in charge of a school, like a president is in charge of a country or a CEO is in charge of a company. A classic sign of being in trouble is getting called to the principal's office. Most schools also have assistant principals or vice principals. All the other staff, plus the teachers and students, must answer to the principal, but the principal has to answer to the superintendent and the school district. If a school is doing well, the principal gets a lot of the credit, and if the school is falling apart, they get a lot of the blame.
There's an old saying, "When one door closes, another door opens." So even though graduation is about the end of high school, it also means many students will be going on to a college or university: in either case, an institution of higher learning. The main difference between a college and university has to do with what the faculty are up to: universities produce more research than colleges, which are more focused on teaching. So if you want to get taught by the finest scholars who publish cutting-edge research, go to a university. If you want to get taught by a different batch extremely smart people who'd rather be teaching than conducting research, go to a college.
Congratulations to all the recent graduates on finishing school and this column. Both took effort, but at least this column didn't include gym class.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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