Rice University has decided to stop using the term “master” to describe the heads of its residential colleges over concerns that the word is associated with slavery.
The school will instead use the term “magister,” a classical Latin word meaning “teacher,” according to an April 6 memo from school officials as reported by the College Fix.
“It conveys the traditional role and duties of the people holding this position, without the negative historical connotation of the word ‘master,’” Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson stated in the memo. “We believe that ‘college magister’ holds true to our cultural roots, while eliminating the concerns and confusion about the previous title.”
Now, Hutchinson specifically mentions the “historical connotation” of the word, but it’s important to note that this “historical connotation” that some students were perceiving is very different from its actual history. As the school newspaper, the Rice Thresher, notes, the college began using the term in 1956, when it moved to a residential system based on the systems at Harvard and Yale — both of which “had adopted the residential system housing system as well as the term ‘master’ from Oxford and Cambridge.”
“At Oxford, the use of the term ‘master’ may have originated as a shorthand for ‘headmaster’ or ‘schoolmaster,” the Thresher explains.
(As the College Fix notes, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton have all already stopped using the term for the same reasons.)
Normally, when we talk about the “historical connotation” of a word being offensive, we talk about it having an offensive origin or that it’s a word that has been uniquely linked to something that’s problematic. For example, feminists often decry any use of the word “hysterical” because it comes from the Greek hysterikos, which means “of the womb” or “suffering in the womb,” and people used to use it to attribute a woman’s psychological distress to her having a uterus. That was the specific use of the word; it was never used to describe men. Personally, I have no problem with the use of “hysterical,” because it has since evolved to apply to a whole host of other scenarios, and getting offended by a word based on what it used to uniquely apply to seems a little insane to me.
The word ‘master’ plays such a large role in the English language — just how much are we going to have to change our current dictionary?
But this “master” situation is even more insane, because you cannot even make the case that the word was uniquely associated with slavery. Yes, it describes having control or authority over another (derived from the late Old English word mægester, which means exactly that) and that does describe the power dynamics of slavery, but it hasn’t been used uniquely for that purpose. It does, however, have a long history of being used in the context of academic authority in particular; it was used to describe “a degree conveying authority to teach in the universities” in the late 14th century. So basically, there’s a push to stop using a word to describe an academic authority that has roots in being used to describe specifically academic authority.
Today, the word “master” is used in so, so many different contexts other than slavery. Think about it: The Masters, master bedroom, MasterChef. (Perhaps we should change those names as well? I nominate “Big Golf Thing,” “the biggest bedroom in the house bedroom” and “The Chef That Is the Best Chef Out of All These Chef Contestants,” just to, you know, avoid any potential “negative connotations.”) Oh, and “mastermind.” I guess we had better start saying “the mind that had the most to do with the thing.” The word “master” can describe having talent in pretty much any area — are all of these uses going to become offensive, too? The word “master” plays such a large role in the English language — just how much are we going to have to change our current dictionary?
There are also so many words other than “master” that could be considered offensive based on this standard. For example, people with slaves were also called “slave owners,” which, if you notice, has the word “owner” in it. The exact same logic that’s leading Rice and other colleges to get rid of the word “master” would also demand that words and phrases such as “homeowner,” “pet owner,” and “girl, own it!” be changed — and, sorry, but I really don’t think I’ll ever refer to myself as “a possessor of a pet.”
– Katherine Timpf is a reporter for National Review Online.