Why do you suppose academics say symposium?

Nov 15, 2015

If you attended a symposium in the 18th century, you likely did so with an "adult beverage" in hand.

Now, the word symposium strikes a different image: a group of academics talking research, nary an "adult beverage" in sight. Why the change of heart, academia?

Our own resident academic, University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, is at hand to provide some needed insight into the language of academia.

As a colleague of Curzan’s pointed out, the etymological root of symposium was a lively affair. “It originally means ‘a convivial meeting for drinking, conversation, and intellectual entertainment,’” Curzan explains. 

But it was not to last. “It got transferred pretty quickly to mean a meeting of any kind,” Curzan continued. Soon enough, alcohol became the exception instead of the norm at symposia.

Yet this got Curzan thinking about language within the academy. “Sometimes people make fun of academic jargon,” she says. “But I want to note that it can make technical sense.”

Words like hermeneutic and phenomenological are long words, but they have specific meaning to academics in the humanities. “These are words that say ‘we are now in a particular field,’” says Curzan.

She also notes that jargon is not the exclusive territory of academia; other disciplines have their unique lingo, as well. Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller is especially fond of “cop-speak,” where words like suspect and apprehended stand in for words like person and caught.

In these cases, jargon is pretty obvious. But it can also be more subtle. “If we look at conjunctive adverbs, meaning the adverbs that connect sentences,” says Curzan,” there are ones that are really academic. Including, for example, however.”

According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English, we use however nine times more in academia than we do in everyday speech, which probably isn’t surprising if you’ve ever written a term paper. Other examples include thus and arguably, both of which are also used to present arguments. This, of course, is crucial for academics.

“Good for the debate team, too,” adds Miller.