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shameless pleading

Degree / Pedigree

Of course it’s a recovery. You people just need to clap harder.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading an interesting article yesterday that was questioning whether a college education was still worth it, due to skyrocketing education costs, horrendous associated student debt, and a dismal jobs market. The conclusion of the article was that it’s increasingly a judgment call. Cheerful stuff. I also started to ponder the word “degree.” It’s got a diverse catalog of uses: “degree” as in the old sheepskin, the college certification, “degree” as unit of temperature measurement, and “degree” as unit of geographical measurement. Can you shine a light on the derivations? And, while we’re on this topic, does “pedigree” have some distant cousin status to “degree”? I asked my cats, and they just rolled their eyes at me. — Chris Schultz, Kansas City.

Yeah, you’ll get that with cats. They march around all superior and snooty, like they graduated from some Cat Sorbonne somewhere with an advanced degree in string theory or something and haven’t got time to listen to your silly twaddle. But every so often they slip up, like a few weeks ago when I left the TV on in my office while I was working. I glanced up after a few minutes and noticed that Mister Boots was completely engrossed in a rerun of My Name Is Earl. Seriously. Oh well. Chacun son goût, I suppose. But I’m gonna draw the line at Two and a Half Men.

Wanna really depressing job? Claims taker at the Unemployment Office. Been there, done that. I lasted two months.

As it happens, there actually is an indirect connection between “degree” and “pedigree,” and it’s rather a neat one, but I’m going to let you folks speculate on what it might be while I wrestle with “degree.” I really ought to be taking bets, because you’re not likely to guess the explanation of “pedigree.”

“Degree” first appeared in English in the 13th century, from the Old French “degre,” which in turn came from the Vulgar Latin “degradus,” which was a combination of “de” (“down”) and “gradus,” meaning “step.” The same “gradus” also gave us “grade,” “gradual” and “degrade,” among other words.

The initial sense of “grade” in English was literally “one of a series of steps in a flight of stairs, or a rung of a ladder,” but it also carried over the figurative sense of “step or stage in a process” that it had acquired in Old French. One of the earliest uses of “degree” in this figurative sense was to mean the number of genealogical “steps” by which one person was separated from another, an important bit of information when deciding who was allowed to marry whom.

All our common uses of “degree” that have developed since the 13th century have centered on this metaphorical sense of “steps” to measure or indicate, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “A … stage in intensity or amount; the relative intensity, extent, measure, or amount of a quality, attribute, or action” of a thing or process. Thus when your nephew finally gets his Master’s Degree in Skateboard Studies, he has climbed another important step towards his apparent goal of permanent unemployment. This sense of “step” also underlies our use of “degree” to mean an increment of measurement of temperature, longitude or latitude, or the relation of one line to another in geometry. (Incidentally, the division of a circle into 360 degrees, which underlies both the geographic and geometric use of the term, dates back to ancient times, when some calendars measured a year as 360 days.) While all these uses depend on a “degree” being a specified value, we also use “degree” in a somewhat vaguer sense to mean simply “extent” or “amount” (“The blame for the boat’s sinking lay to a large degree with the Captain, who had been drinking for three days”).

The connection of “pedigree” to “degree” is not direct, but “pedigree” is interesting in its own right. On Medieval genealogical charts the lines indicating descent (by “degree,” of course) were, unlike on our modern charts, not horizontal and vertical but usually slanting or curved. Such charts (and later the degrees of relation they depicted) were known as “pied de grue” in Old French, meaning literally “crane’s foot,” because the branching, slanting lines resembled the footprint of a large bird. Once “pedigree” had entered English in the 15th century as “pedagrew” or “pedigrue,” its close association with “degree” in the genealogical sense (as well as the similarity in sound of “digrue” to “degree”) led to “pedigrue” slowly changing its spelling to “pedigree.”

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