Trend Watch

Summa cum laude

Summa? Magna? How to distinguish between two marks of distinction


with highest distinction

Both summa cum laude and magna cum laude trended after President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.

He earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude.
—Text of President Obama’s speech,, 16 March 2016

Garland received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, summa cum laude and magna cum laude, respectively.
Courthouse News Service, 16 March, 2016

Both summa cum laude and magna cum laude are Latin phrases adopted into English; the former means "with highest praise," and the latter "with great praise." They signify meritorious achievement on the part of a graduate from a school, college, or university.

We give the titles Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Summa Cum Laude.
The American Journal of Education, July 1856

There are four grades of these, the lowest being those in which the examination has been passed cum laude (with praise); the next, magna cum laude (with great praise); then insigni cum laude (with remarkable praise); and the last summa cum laude (with the highest praise.)
The Crayon, 1 September 1856

The English-speaking educational system is not the only one to have borrowed these Latin encomia; some variant of these awards can be found in other languages, and occasionally in use before when it first appeared in English. An 1841 book by William Howitt, titled The Student-Life of Germany, gives a description of the various titles given to graduating students in that confederation of states in the middle of the 19th century.

The usual degrees are these four—“Summa cum laude:” “Praeclara cum laude;” “Insigni cum laude;” “Magno cum laude;” (feliciter evasit, as the student jocosely says).

Of the various honorifics given to graduating students, cum laude began being used the earliest, with written evidence some twenty years prior to summa and magna. The fourth category mentioned above, insigni cum laude ("with remarkable praise") appears to have fallen by the wayside.

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