The word “campus”

A few words about the word campus:

  1. The word campus as used in the U.S. today refers to the grounds of a college or university.
  2. The earliest known use of the proper noun the Campus in a collegiate context occurred in 1774 at Princeton, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.   Charles C. Beatty wrote Enoch Green on January 31, 1774: “Last week to show our patriotism, we gathered all the steward’s winter store of tea, and having made a fire in the Campus, we there burnt near a dozen pounds, tolled the bell and made many spirited resolves.”
  3. It does not follow that the meaning of the proper noun the Campus in the eighteenth century is the same as the meaning of the general term campus today.   Yes, the word was used first at Princeton; yes, the word refers a college grounds today; no, it did not mean that in 1774 or even in 1874.   Therefore the OED is incorrect to the extent that it attributes a present-day definition of campus to the 1774 use of the Campus.

    The OED may be forgiven for imprecision, but its citation to Beatty’s letter unfortunately has given rise to the myth that campus as a word for college grounds was used in the eighteenth century and began at Princeton. Alexander Leitch, in A Princeton Companion (1978) wrote that the use of campus “to mean the grounds of a college originated at Princeton”; Turner repeated the myth in Campus: An American Planning Tradition (1984); Barbara Hadley Stanton repeated it (citing the OED) in “Cognitive Standards and the Sense of Campus,” Places 17, no 1 (Spring 2005), 38.

  4. On the contrary, the proper name the Campus, in keeping with its Latin meaning of “the field,” referred to a more-or-less bounded plot of land, a particular and identifiable collegiate urban space (at Princeton or, later, at other colleges).   The word did not refer to the grounds or real estate or physical plant of a college.   Beatty implied this in his sentence by writing that he “made a fire in the Campus” (using a sense of the word “in” that remains current in Britain, where a car is “in the street,” not “on the street”).   The site where the fire took place was a particular field in front of Nassau Hall, and if the fire had been on a different part of the college grounds, Beatty would not have said “in the Campus.”   In other words, he did not use the term to contrast two fires that might be on-campus and off-campus, which would be the implication if he had used today’s meaning of campus.

    Albert Matthews’ article on the use of the word campus in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts 3 (1897) apparently suggested that Princeton President John Witherspoon was struck on his arrival by Princeton’s flat, unenclosed front field and introduced the Classical term to describe it.   This explanation of the arrival of the word fits with Beatty’s meaning, and it supports the continued reference to that particular plot in later years: the Princeton Trustees referred to “the back campus of the College” (1787) and “the front Campus” (1807) according to Leitch.

    James Finch, Travels in the United States and Canada (1833) used the word in print first, writing “In front of the College is a fine campus ornamented with trees,” again according to A Princeton Companion. Nothing could make this original, narrow meaning clearer than Benjamin Homer Hall’s definition in College Words and Customs (1856): At Princeton, “the college yard is denominated the Campus.”

    In 1869, a Dartmouth student wrote that a tent had appeared “on the campus opposite the Dartmouth Hotel” (The Dartmouth 3, no. 10 (November 1869), 393); an 1883 oration was directed to “this dear old exercise ground,” cheering “the glory of this long-to-be-remembered Campus” (“wah–hoo–wah! C–A–M–P–U–S!”) (William Edward Cushman, 1883, “Campus Oration” in “Exercises of Class Day at Dartmouth College, Tuesday, June 26, 1883” (Hanover, N.H.: Class of 1883, 1883), 22); and into the 1930s, a student could write that a parade had marched to the President’s House and then back “to the campus” to set off a bonfire (Richard N. Campen, 11 November 1930 letter excerpted in in Edward Connery Lathem and David M. Shribman, eds., Miraculously Builded in Our Hearts: A Dartmouth Reader (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College, distributed by University Press of New England, 1999), 136).

    Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in Three Centuries of Harvard (1936) that since Princeton started calling its field “the campus,” “[o]ne by one every other American college has followed suit, until Harvard alone has kept her Yard.”

  5. No one has yet demonstrated how the meaning of the word shifted from the proper name of a college field “to mean the grounds of a college.”   It might have happened at Princeton, which seems to have been using the word longest.   Klauder and Wise noted that such a shift was taking place nationally when they wrote of campus: “This too has changed its meaning as the buildings have expanded and increased with the growth of the institutions. It has now a more extended meaning and comprises all the centrally located property of the institution” (Charles Z. Klauder & Herbert C. Wise, College Architecture in America (1929), 4).   The transition was relatively late at Dartmouth, where the old meaning of the word did not die out until the mid-twentieth century.   Though some had begun calling the bounded plot at the center of Dartmouth “the Green” by 1809 (William Tully in Oliver S. Haywood and Elizabeth H. Thomson, eds., The Journal of William Tully, Medical Student at Dartmouth 1808-1809 (New York: Science History Publications, 1977), 23, writing “[t]he green, I should judge to be but little short of a quarter of a mile square”), that term did not dominate until perhaps the 1940s.   Perhaps as the general term campus became popular nationally, it made Dartmouth’s old name for its space confusing, requiring a replacement.
  6. Today, the term campus is used everywhere almost exclusively in its broad, college-grounds meaning.   It is even spreading abroad to universities that existed before the word was adopted in a collegiate context.   Older uses survive, however.   Along with its recurrence in songs (“the long, cool shadows floating on the campus”), it recurs in the name of the main snow sculpture for Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, which is called officially the Center-of-Campus Statue, a reference to its site at the center of the Green rather than to its site near the center of the college grounds.

[Updated 09.19.2005, 09.30.2005, 10.01.2005.]

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