Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 11, 2017

The Words University and College

The Words University and College

by Jon Aske

[The following is an abridged version of a section of Chapter 4 of Part II of the book Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics, by Jon Aske. The section can be read in full here: You may also be interested in the origin of the word Halloween, found here:]

The cognate words Eng. university and Sp. universidad started to be used in the Middle Ages in Europe to refer to institutions of higher learning, where all learning was done in Latin, the universal language of the time for theology, politics, and education. The modern university is much more than that.

The first Western European university arose in Bologna (Italy) in the late 11th century, the second one in Paris (France) in the mid-12th century, and the third one in Oxford (England) in the late-12th century. In Spain, the universities of Palencia and Salamanca date from the early 13th century. The University of Salamanca’s claim to fame is that it was the first one to be officially called a university, by royal decree, in 1253.

The universities at both Paris and Oxford were composed of colleges, which were at the time nothing more than residence halls for scholars. The word college, and its false-friend cognate Sp. colegio, come from Lat. collēgĭum, a noun that referred primarily to ‘persons united by the same office or calling, or living by some common rules, a college, guild, corporation, society, union, company, fraternity’ (L&S). The word college in Modern English means primarily ‘an institution of higher learning that grants the bachelor’s degree in liberal arts or science or both’ (AHD). This concept is rather alien in Spanish-speaking countries, where it is not common for a university not to grant all advanced degrees, including master’s degrees and doctorates. Thus, the equivalent of going to college in Spanish is ir a la universidad.

In Spanish, the cognate word colegio used to have the same meaning as college did, namely residence hall for a community of scholars who were destined for the study of sciences, arts, or trades under some kind of authority and rules. In some countries they still call this type of residence hall a colegio mayor. Nowadays, however, Sp. colegio refers primarily to an elementary and/or secondary school, though this word is more common in some countries than others, competing with the word escuela, especially when talking about public schools. The meaning of the word varies somewhat from place to place and from time to time, however. Today, for example, colegio is not used in Spain much anymore for the equivalent of high school, for which instituto is preferred.

Meeting of doctors at the University of Paris (14th-century manuscript)[i]

In both English and Spanish, the word college can have additional meanings, such as ‘an organized group of professional people with particular aims, duties, and privileges’ (COED). In the US, it is used in the term electoral college, which is ‘a body of electors chosen to elect the President and Vice President of the United States’ (AHD).

The word collēgĭum was derived in Latin from the noun collēga ‘partner in judgeship or other office, colleague’. Eng. colleague and Sp. colega descend from that Latin word. The two can be said to have very similar meanings, at least in theory, since they both refer to ‘a person with whom one works in a profession or business’ (COED). In practice, however, they are not used in exactly the same way.

There are a few other interesting words derived from the stem collēgĭ‑ of Lat. collēgĭum. From this word, Latin derived the adjective collēgĭālis. From it come Eng. collegial and Sp. colegial, which are also false friends. The main meaning of Eng. collegial today is probably ‘marked by camaraderie among colleagues’ (MWC), whereas Sp. colegial is primarily a noun meaning ‘schoolchild’. English also derived the noun collegiality from the adjective collegial in the late 19th century, which now means primarily ‘cooperative interaction among colleagues’ (RHWU).

Another word derived from collēgĭum in Latin was collēgĭātus, which meant ‘member of a collēgĭum (society, college, corporation)’. From this Latin word descend Eng. collegiate and Sp. colegiado, whose meanings are also very different from each other.

Going back to the words university and universidad, these words are derived from the Latin term ūnĭvĕrsĭtās ‘the whole’, or more accurately its accusative wordform ūnĭvĕrsĭtātem. This word is formed, in Latin, from the stem ūnĭvers‑ that we have seen and the noun-forming derivational suffix ‑tās (plus the linking vowel ‑ĭ‑). This suffix was added to adjectives (or sometimes nouns) to form abstract third declension feminine nouns indicating a state or condition. The reason that the accusative form of this word was used is that patrimonial Latin words with the suffix ‑ĭtās descended into Spanish and French through their accusative wordform, which in this case ended in ‑ĭtātem, an ending that in patrimonial words changed to ‑idad in Spanish and ‑ité in French (English ‑ity comes from Fr. ‑ité). When additional words with this suffix were borrowed from Latin later on, the same patrimonial suffix was added to them.

So, how did universities get this name? You won’t be surprised to know that there is a connection with the word universe, which comes from Lat. ūnĭvĕrsus, an adjective that meant ‘whole, entire, taken collectively’. It was a compound formed with the root ūn‑  of the numeral ūnus ‘one’ and the participle vĕrsus ‘turned’, with the linking vowel ‑ĭ‑  added in between (ūn‑ĭ‑vĕrs‑us). Thus, this adjective meant literally ‘turned (into) one’.

From the adjective ūnĭvĕrsus, Latin derived the noun ūnĭvĕrsĭtās, which originally just meant ‘the whole’. This word came to be used for ‘a number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation’ (L&S), a meaning similar to the one Lat. collēgĭum had. When universities were created, these new centers of learning, or guilds or corporations of teachers and of students came to be called, in Latin, universitas magistrorum ‘guild of teachers’ or universitas scholarium ‘guild of students’ (or, together, universitas magistrorum et scholarium ‘guild of teachers and students’). It was a matter of time before these terms were reduced to universitas, a term which was then adapted to the local languages by changing its ending to the ending Latin words ending in ‑itas typically took, namely ‑ity in English and ‑idad in Spanish.

The model of the European university has spread to the whole world, but universities have also changed much in recent times. The focus of learning has shifted in the last 200 years from learning Latin and the seven liberal arts—grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music—that resulted in students then joining one of the three professional faculties, namely medicine, law, and theology. There just is so much more to learn!


  • L&S: Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary,
  • AHD: American Heritage Dictionary
  • MWC: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th edition
  • COED: Concise Oxford English Dictionary
  • RHWU: Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

[i] Source: A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris. From the “Chants royaux” manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Accessed: 2017.11.11

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