Swim if you can.
Dear Word Detective: I am doing a report on the word “school.” Can you please tell me what its origins are and when the word was first used. Which came first — a school of fish or a school for learning and education? Why is a group of fish called a “school” anyway? — Alyssa.
Oh boy, a school question. I usually don’t answer research questions from students on principle, the principle being that I spent many years not doing my own homework, so why in the world should I now do theirs? In this case, however, the question has a delightful recursive quality, and the answer is not what most people (possibly including your teacher) expect, so we’ll give it a shot. Besides, I must admit that I enjoy participating in the educational process from a safe distance. It’s like watching the guy next door shovel his walk from the warmth of your own living room. In fact, I think I’ll have a tasty stick of gum while I write.
I’ve never been good at keeping a secret, so I’ll cut to the chase right away. The “school” one attends in hopes of having a well-rounded education and success in life is an entirely different word than the “school” fish join in hopes of whatever fish hope. This probably seems strange and perhaps a bit of a letdown, considering that fish in “schools” display a regimentation that is the envy of every human teacher out there, but they are indeed two different words, with two different origins.
The “school” meaning “place of instruction” comes from the Latin “scola,” itself derived from the Greek “skhole,” meaning “lecture or discussion.” Interestingly, that Greek “skhole” originally meant “leisure, free time.” It then developed to mean “time used for intellectual discussion,” then to mean the discussions themselves, and finally to mean the place where such discussions were conducted, what today we would recognize as a “school.” We inherited “school” from the Old English form “scol,” and almost immediately began using it in the figurative sense of “an environment which teaches through experience” as in the “school of disappointment,” or the 20th century variant “school of hard knocks,” meaning a period of deprivation and abuse. By the early 17th century we were also using “school” in the figurative sense of “group of people who share agreement on a subject” (as in “school of thought”). And “school,” as you’ve probably guessed, also gave us “scholar,” “scholastic” and similar derivatives.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in English, we were adopting the Middle Dutch word “schole,” which meant “group of fish or other animals.” Although originally it was possible to speak of a “school” of pheasants, for example, in modern usage this “school” is applied only to fish swimming together.