Academe's Evolving Vocabulary

03/02/2015 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

In academe, as in any culture, vocabularies shift as values change. I was reminded of that recently during a cocktail reception when a friend of mine who is president of a large public university began an animated harangue about the fact that some institutions still refer to the president's spouse as "the first lady."

"It's incredibly sexist," she said to a group of us. "Most progressive institutions have abandoned this practice ages ago. Besides, what do you do in a case like mine? Am I supposed to refer to my husband as 'the first man,' or 'the first gentleman,' or, following Sarah Palin, 'the first dude?'"

Joining in the fun of the moment, someone suggested "the first husband," and another chimed in, "How about 'the first partner?'" Then I mentioned an institution where, following the president's practice of constantly referring to his wife as the first lady, even in official documents, some of the vice presidents on the campus began referring in public to their spouses as the first lady of their division -- as in the first lady of student affairs or the first lady of finance and administration.

My friend's point was that, over the last few decades, many institutions have tried to be sensitive to potentially offensive language by altering the official terminology they use. She was frustrated that some universities lag behind the times and don't seem to be aware of the negative effect of their outdated jargon.

Another example of our shifting language is "freshman" -- as in "the freshman class" or "freshman English." Seeking to avoid what some feel is a blatantly sexist term, some institutions instead use the phrase "first-year students," and "beginning" or "first-year" English to refer to the typical sequence of required English courses that students take in their first year.

That isn't the only term we've abandoned. The word "coed," once routinely used to refer to a female student in a coeducational institution, was jettisoned from our official vocabulary long ago. It now seems to be relegated to sexually explicit literature, as in magazine articles with titles like "Sexy Coeds of the South." And today, colleges are much more likely to refer to "international students" than to the more jingoistic (or at least ethnocentric) "foreign students." Similarly, what was once called "foreign languages" is now increasingly called "world languages."

Not all vocabulary changes in academe have to do with issues of sexism or ethnic sensitivities. Some simply reflect a change in values, or in how institutions perceive something differently from how they once did. A good example is the now passé "dormitory," or "dorm." The term administrators prefer to use these days is "residence hall." That change reflects the fact that universities today see student living quarters as much more than just a place to sleep (the word "dormitory" derives from the Latin dormire, meaning "to sleep"). The emphasis now is on the larger student experience, now often termed "student life," and "residence hall" more accurately captures that expanded meaning.

Likewise, what once was almost exclusively called the "student cafeteria" is now typically the "dining hall," often with a donor's name attached to it. Many feature "restaurant-styled formats" with menus that change daily and include vegetarian options. The transition away from the old "cafeteria" -- and its ubiquitous "mystery meat" -- is not a trivial matter. It signifies a qualitative change in how universities now understand their relationship to students and the student experience.

That same understanding has spurred terminology change in academic-support programs on campus. Tutorial services that were once called "math clinics" and "writing labs" have shed those quasi-medical or remedial-sounding names for the friendlier "writing center" or "math center." In fact, many universities are now consolidating their academic support areas (tutoring, advising, and TRIO) under one umbrella term: "the Student Success Center" or some similarly positive and encouraging name.

"Plaza" and "commons" are two words that have become common on today's campuses to describe physical spaces where students can meet either to study or socialize. Take just one university as an example: the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Students there can dine at Carson Gulley Commons, take advantage of Spanish tutoring at Gordon Commons or math tutoring at Holt Commons, view the university's Athletic Hall of Fame display at Ray Kubly Plaza, or lounge outside at Union South Plaza. Those terms, and the spaces they name, help reinforce the communal nature of student life on today's campuses and reflect how contemporary universities are doing much more to enhance students' overall living and learning experience.

Even how we name our academic departments and disciplines is changing. Although departmental names vary by institution, in general, what once was the "speech and audiology" department is now "communication sciences and disorders"; "home economics" has become "family and consumer sciences"; "foreign languages" is now "global languages" or "languages, literatures and cultures." What once was "educational administration and foundations" today might be called the department of "educational leadership studies" or "educational leadership and policy analysis."

The lingo we use in academe today does not necessarily have to replace other terms in order to signal a shift in values and priorities. The jargon that circulates now in our discussions reveals much about our values: accountability, diversity, entrepreneurialism, globalization, sustainability, campus reorganization, distance learning, economic development, and public/private partnerships. Those and other common terms say much about our priorities.

The university president who railed against the continued use of "first lady" was making a good point: The words we use are important, not trivial. They reveal our ideals, values, and principles. They reflect the realities of our institutions, what we struggle over, and what we aspire to be.

Note: This is a revised version of an essay that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.