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There was a big fuss made last week by commercial suppliers at the decision by the British government to allow the BBC to offer a digital curriculum, albeit with strings attached. As part of the government’s e-learning strategy, the BBC will spend £150m over five years on providing interactive multimedia learning materials for schools, colleges and individuals via the Internet.

Such a collection of buzzwords ought to warn us that we are — to borrow yet another — at the cutting edge of technology, even though the term digital curriculum itself is now some years old and has been borrowed from initiatives in the USA. It could be worse. If meaning were to follow etymology, the BBC might have been asked to provide carriage-driving lessons.

The original Latin meaning of curriculum was a course, but of the kind that one runs around (it came from currere, to run), or perhaps traverses in a racing chariot, a transferred sense. The first borrowing of the Latin word into English — in the late seventeenth century — was for a light, two-wheeled, twin-horsed carriage, the curricle, the sports car of carriage days. A very Jane-Austen word is curricle, as in Northanger Abbey:

A very short trial convinced her that a curricle was the prettiest equipage in the world; the chaise and four wheeled off with some grandeur, to be sure, but it was a heavy and troublesome business, and she could not easily forget its having stopped two hours at Petty France. Half the time would have been enough for the curricle, and so nimbly were the light horses disposed to move, that, had not the general chosen to have his own carriage lead the way, they could have passed it with ease in half a minute.

By then, the Latin word curriculum had already been in use for half a century in Latin texts in at least one of our ancient universities in the figurative sense of a course of study (if you are thinking here of Oxford or Cambridge, I have to correct you, since the ancient university in which it appeared first was that of Glasgow; the word gained acceptance there before it moved south). However, it doesn’t appear as an English word until 1824, again at Glasgow University. Even more recent — dating from 1902 — is curriculum vitae, literally “the course of one’s life”.

We have now thoroughly accepted curriculum into the language and have created the adjective curricular to go with it (and by extension, extracurricular). At first, though, curricular meant “pertaining to driving or to carriages”, the only sense given in the First Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary — its educational associations are twentieth century.

Our only surviving problem with curriculum is whether the plural is to be curricula, as Latinists would prefer, or whether we should English it into curriculums. Even more problematic is what to call more than one CV: if you’re tempted on the basis of a little Latin to refer to curricula vitarum, scholars will immediately correct you — this refers to a set of documents, each of which describes more than one life. The correct term is curricula vitae.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 25 Jan 2003