Word Matters Podcast

'Matriculate': A Word on the Move

Word Matters, Episode 7

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Today we travel to the wide world of sports to ask the question (we assume) everyone's been pondering: how did the word for enrolling in a school start being used to describe the movement of a football down a field? Then, we examine the origins of a word that once took flight, literally.

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips) EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Words catch on, words work, when they have a function. And this word seems to be doing what it’s meant to do.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: Sometimes the meanings of words remind me of the prices of commodities, which means to say that they’re established by a marketplace.

EMILY: Coming up on Word Matters: matriculate and borrowing from French. I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary’s vantage point.

(music interlude)

EMILY: We’ve noticed an interesting pattern in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com that correlates with the National Football League’s schedule. Each week during football season, searches go up for a rather unexpected word. Matriculate. How did a word for enrolling in school make its way to the gridiron? Next up, I’ll take a look at a developing sense of a formerly solely academic word. Sometimes words develop in ways that are unexpected. As lexicographers we’re all familiar with language change. Words start with one meaning and they develop another meaning and usually it’s a pretty clear path that they take. A transitive verb may develop intransitive use, or a word may go from literal to figurative. But I recently became aware of a word that has developed a new meaning that seems wholly unrelated to any of its existing meanings. And the word is matriculate.

PETER: Matriculate.

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: Matriculate.

EMILY: It’s a verb. The transitive use dates to the late 16th century. It means "to enroll someone in a college or university." And then it has an intransitive use that developed in the 18th century "to be enrolled." So you know, someone matriculates at UMass, someone is matriculated at UMass, for example. But, in recent years, the word matriculate has been used in this wholly unrelated use. I’m gonna read an example to you all from Pro Football Weekly. This is from January 2019. “Granted, he caught seven of those nine balls for 246 yards and two scores, so when the Saints did take shots to him, he made the most of them. But for the most part, Thomas worked as a short and immediate target to help Brees matriculate the ball downfield."

NEIL: Down the…

PETER: In the context I sort of understand what that means, but it has nothing to do with entering a school.

EMILY: Right, right. Now this is a 2019 use, and this use of matriculate dates back to 1970. And the context is what saves it. That you can tell from the context that this means to advance a ball. That’s what it means. Right.

NEIL: It almost seems like the verb isn’t doing a lot of the work in that sentence.

PETER: That’s right.

NEIL: You’re just kinda doing something to a ball down the field, it’s suggesting a motion.

PETER: And it sounds very technical. It sounds like some official term that I’m not familiar with because I’m not a professional, but I get it.

NEIL: It sounds like a verb of function, like you think of cogitate or regurgitate.

PETER: Yeah, right, one of those Latin verbs.

NEIL: One of those Latin verbs of converting something to something else.


EMILY: It’s good, right?

PETER: Does the ball get a diploma?

AMMON SHEA, HOST: The ball gets a scholarship.

PETER: A scholarship, of course!

EMILY: Not until it graduates, right, right, it gets a scholarship, exactly. This use dates back to a very particular person, and sometimes when this use of matriculate is employed they actually mention this person. His name was Hank Stram and he was a former Kansas City Chiefs coach. And in Super Bowl IV, which was in 1970, he was the first coach to be miked during a game.

PETER: Oh so you could hear his…

EMILY: You could hear what he was saying.

NEIL: You could hear all the swears.

EMILY: Yes. I assume they were bleeped, right? I don’t know.

NEIL: I would think.

EMILY: Or it must have been delayed and then.. Anyway, he used the word matriculate in this game. And apparently he was playful with his language in general.

NEIL: I was just gonna say, maybe he was selected because they knew he was a graceful speaker…

EMILY: I don’t know. Yeah.

NEIL: … and would not need a bleep.

EMILY: Now he may also have been upping his language game, because he knew he was miked.

PETER: He was performing, right.

EMILY: Right? There’s like, how many millions of people are gonna listen to me say something? I should maybe use some impressive language like matriculate.

PETER: And so he essentially coined this new sense of the word.

EMILY: He coined the new sense. We don’t know that he coined it for this game. He could’ve used this word in other games and we don’t know about that, but we know that he is the one that coined this use. And in early examples of this use of matriculate in print, he is often mentioned. “As Coach Stram would say, they’re gonna matriculate the ball down the field.”

AMMON: Is it being used for other? Do golfers matriculate the ball?

EMILY: That’s funny that you ask, because the first example of this use of matriculate in print, according to LexisNexis anyway, which you know is a huge database of all kinds of different publications, the earliest example in print that I could find, this use of matriculate is about golf.

PETER: Oh. From how long ago?

EMILY: It was from the Miami Herald, May 18, 1987. It says “Elder always preferred to matriculate the ball on down the fairway.” But that’s an anomaly. It is mostly used about football. It is not typically a golf use.

PETER: But that means the word is absorbed by at least that writer.

EMILY: Yeah, but just that one time. So it really seems to hew really closely to football.

PETER: American football.

NEIL: What I like is how there’s an implied sense of gradual movement. It’s not like, a 60 yard pass down the field is not really matriculating. It’s more about these three- and four-yard gains that are gradual or something and persistently moving the ball, like a small gain every time. I get the sense that throwing a single pass Hail Mary down the field and getting a big score on one play is not really matriculating. There’s no sense of a process there.

EMILY: Right, interesting.

PETER: It’s interesting that the word graduate also means gradual, right? In that sense. Moving.

NEIL: Absolutely.

EMILY: But matriculate does not. I mean you either enroll or you don’t.

PETER: No I know but I’m just saying that echo of that Latin final term, yeah.

EMILY: Yeah. Well this is why the word does look like it’s catching on. I mean we’ve got examples from early 2000s it’s really picking up frequency, it’s not a hugely uncommon word to hear in this particular sense. And words catch on, words work, when they have a function. And this word seems to be doing what it’s meant to do.

NEIL: And it has that kind of relationship to academia, and you know, which has a lot of Latin words in it.

EMILY: Right.

NEIL: Now, did Hank Stram, might he have picked this word up, you think, at a college or university? He probably attended one at some point in his career; did he teach…

EMILY: Right, I think he was also a coach, yep.

NEIL: … did he teach or coach at one at some?

EMILY: Yep. So he was around academic language, yep.

NEIL: That strikes me as the most likely way that this entered his own lexicon.

PETER: And it’s interesting to me that the mater, the matriculate, is the same as the alma mater, the academic home that you come from. It’s the same root. Alma mater and matriculate are actually the two bookends of the academic experience.

EMILY: Now we don’t know if Stram really thought that this was a logical extension of a word that he knew. We don’t know if maybe he just liked how the word sounded and just wanted to kinda plunk it into this context. We do know that when he was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame, he actually employed this word in a figurative use of his coinage. He said “As I matriculate my way down the field of life, I will never forget this moment and you wonderful people who helped make this day possible.” He was called on this word. “As Coach Stram said…”

NEIL: That was a wry acknowledgment of his own kind of association.

EMILY: That’s right. Yeah.

PETER: But what’s interesting, the way that words often get into the dictionary, ultimately, is if a word is specialized and used by a coach, a professional football coach of some kind, it’s then adopted by the people who cover that. So the journalists who cover sports take the language of the professional coaches and athletes and then it moves into the general press from the specific press, you know? So it always kind of moves toward the more general vocabulary. I wonder if this sense will ever make it to the more general, like, a dictionary definition.

EMILY: Right. Well, we’re watching it.

PETER: Fascinating. We’ll see if it graduates.

EMILY: Right.

(music break)

EMILY: You’re listening to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. Peter Sokolowski will be back after this break with the story of how we’ve roughed up some words from French. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

PETER: I’m Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

NEIL: I’m Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

(music break)

EMILY: English loves to borrow words from other languages, but it’s not very gracious about it. It’ll borrow a word, but then kinda rough it up a bit. Leave it out in the rain, wash it on hot, forget it in an Uber, until the word itself is hardly recognizable. Plus it never gives it back. Here’s editor Peter Sokolowski on a pair of words borrowed from the French and then transformed.

PETER: We deal with definitions and the meanings of words, and sometimes the meanings of words remind me of the prices of commodities, which means to say that they’re established by a marketplace. The marketplace is ideas. If a word is used in a certain way, that’s the way we all understand it. If it’s, for example, changed its meaning over time and is much more frequently used in the new way, then sort of the market has gone to the new meaning and not to the old meaning. And we see this all the time in words. We see words that sort of have meanings that aren’t the same as they were originally. They sort of change. And it’s kind of a marketplace of meaning in language, it seems to me. And that’s what we do. We kind of observe these changes of language and we record them in the dictionary. So an example of one of these sort of changes over time is if we need a word for example that means “harsh and angry rhetoric,” we use vitriol, which is a great word that means that, sounds very formal and fancy. But it originally meant "concentrated sulfuric acid." That was the original meaning of the word vitriol, which we all now I think assume has a kind of rhetorical principal meaning, which is true in contemporary English. In other words, it originally meant liquid that burns and now it means words that burn. Metaphorically, it has a kind of beautiful figurative use of the language. And I think there’s another example of this that I’d like to talk about, and it’s a similar shift that show that this passage from the literal to the figurative can kind of be hiding in plain sight when you use a word. And I’m thinking of the word volatile, or volatile. Volatile, which came to English from French and comes from the French verb which means “to fly,” voler means “to fly.” And so you have this idea of flying, or able to fly.

NEIL: Flying off the handle.

PETER: Right. But literally. Literally flying. Not some kind of figurative use. And it comes from the Latin word volatiles, which means winged. So wings and flight are associated with this word. And the French word volatile means “having wings” or “able to fly.” And there’s the word in French volaille, which is spelled V-O-L-A-I-L-L-E, which means “poultry” or “bird” and is kind of a fancy word like, for pheasant or something on a restaurant menu. But what’s interesting to me is that in French the noun volatile, a volatile, a volatile, is a word that simply means “bird.” A volatile, or a volatile, is a word that means bird. And this is actually the original meaning of the word in English. Samuel Johnson, in 1755 he only had one definition for the word volatile and it was “a winged animal.”

EMILY: This is insane.

PETER: I know!

EMILY: I feel like this is absolutely ridiculous to a modern speaker of English, to think that the word volatile originally meant a winged creature.

PETER: And that I love about this is how recent it is. In essentially the thousand years of the history of the English language, 1755 is modern English. I mean this is Samuel Johnson, it’s not that long ago. If we met Johnson on the street, and I wish we could, we could converse with him quite easily.

AMMON: We could talk about gout.

PETER: And we’d complain about the weather or whatever.

EMILY: But we should talk about the volatiles, you know, nesting in the trees or something.

PETER: Yeah. So, anyway, he initially found this word and recorded it as a noun. Now the adjective came quickly after and in English it meant “having wings” or “able to fly.” So, volatile insects, for example, is something you would see in scientific texts of the 18th and 19th century. But then it had this scientific use that changed into something that we would recognize, which is to say, reference to liquids like alcohol or ether that would steam or evaporate at relatively low temperatures. In other words they would change. They would, in some figurative way, fly away, and that chemical use is the one that we have kind of seized upon as the more principled kind of semantic element of this word.

EMILY: When did that use begin?

PETER: Well this is clearly after Johnson; this is in the 19th century.

EMILY: Interesting.

PETER: It’s wonderful to think that this originally meant “able to fly,” now fundamentally meant “changeable.” You know, something that modifies from one to another. And this changeability of the word is interesting because it became what Noah Webster focused on. So 1828, he does have “having the power to fly” and he writes “as birds are volatile animals,” so even in 1828 that was the way he was using it. But then he added this chemical sense, “capable of wasting away or of easily passing into the aeriform state.” So that’s evaporation. But then he added something new, something that had never been in a dictionary before, this idea of behavior or attitude: “lively, gay, full of spirit, airy, hence fickle, apt to change, as a volatile temper.” So you have this coexisting, a volatile animal, which is a sense that I think is completely gone from the language today, and a volatile temper, which is exactly the way we use it today, finding its first expression in Webster’s dictionary. Which again is very modern, this is into the middle 19th century here. And so what’s interesting to me about that is that volatile eventually went from flight to flighty. It went from literally referring to birds and insects that fly to this kind of attitude of a person who was fickle or apt to change. And the example that Webster gives is “you are as giddy and volatile as ever.”

NEIL: Well it seems meant to be a contrast to groundedness.

PETER: Isn’t that interesting.

NEIL: Someone who’s grounded is kinda regarded as being a steady thinker, a person who’s not going to be unpredictable in their habits or mannerisms. And then if they’re flighty, they’re volatile, they’re unpredictable, that’s what we think of when we think of someone having a volatile temper. You don’t want to anger them, because they might blow off the handle.

PETER: It’s interesting, I never thought of grounded as being figurative, but it is. Of course it is.

NEIL: It just strikes me as this is very figurative use. There’s a video game called Angry Birds, but not all birds are angry. Not all insects are angry, unless they’re hornets or wasps or something. But the idea of remaining on the earth is meant to be the contrasting element there.

PETER: Sure. I didn’t even think of that. That’s perfect, that’s exactly right.

NEIL: And think of gaseous elements becoming volatile, I originally thought you were gonna say that volatile substances were ones that might explode or something. But if it can evaporate, that’s sorta different.

PETER: Although gasoline does evaporate.

NEIL: Gasoline does evaporate. But they’re contrasting to solids and liquids, which kind of, solids obviously retain their shape, liquids conform to the shape of the container they’re in. Volatile elements, apparently, once they evaporate they don’t conform to any shape. They can go anywhere. And maybe that’s that nature of unpredictability that is kind of inherent in that meaning.

PETER: And that becomes the semantic nugget, the sort of kernel of this word that we think of today, because the term I think is most used regarding financial markets these days. And I did some corpus searching about volatility as a noun and it’s overwhelmingly used in association with financial markets. And that switch from sort of personality to financial markets happened actually around the same time, the mid-19th century, so already in 1850s, 1860s, we can see that there were newspaper articles written about financial markets and stock markets using the term volatility. And that’s kind of interesting to me, because we also did some searching in our own data to look at when the markets have had moments of uncertainty, and sure enough the word volatile and volatility is a word that spikes in our data. People look it up frequently during those moments. Which is an interesting thing to predict, that this is the word that people focus on in those moments. But it makes sense because it seems like a technical word in that instance.

EMILY: It’s interesting the negative connotations, the volatility of a market and the volatility of a chemical compound, they’re both dangerous. People get anxious about that kind of volatility, and I think that the first figurative use of volatile, it was seen fickle, is that right? It doesn’t have the same negative connotations. A person who is fickle may be inconvenient in that you cannot rely on their sentiments to remain stable, but it’s not as negative as a market being volatile, that changeability doesn’t have the same kind of threat to it as the modern word.

PETER: Oh absolutely. And Webster uses the word lively, which is, and full of spirit, in his definition, so those aren’t negative things.

EMILY: Right. Wholly positive.

PETER: Right, right, right.

NEIL: This is unrelated to this at all, but vole of course is the French word for flight, correct? And I believe I’ve heard one explanation of Voldemort, the name Voldemort, would be flight from death.

PETER: Oh my goodness.

NEIL: I don’t know if J.K. Rowling has actually confirmed this. I think she’s been a little not as eager to confirm that.

PETER: I never thought of that. Cause it’s funny cause it sounds kind of Germanic, that word, but when you break it down it’s just French.

NEIL: Yeah. Vol-de-mort.

PETER: In a way that of course a lot of medieval English uses of French would sort of crush the words together.

AMMON: Mortgage, like “death tax”

PETER: Death tax, that’s exactly what it is, right. It’s fascinating. But also, it’s fascinating but it’s also hidden in plain sight. It’s right there, I mean voler is a very common, it just means “to fly.” It’s interesting to think that a volatile insect can bring you right there. You can realize, oh, it’s an insect that is able to fly. And so these ideas that are sort of flying around this word are those that are now associated with changeability and less with the ability to fly.

(music outro)

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

(end music)

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