Last year, I covered “syllabus” as our word for the first week of classes. It’s one that many students never encounter before arriving on campus. Given the ancient history of universities, there’s no surprise that many words unknown beyond our gates crop up.
Some terms, like “campus,” “curriculum,” or “physical plant” enjoy broader usage, but I could not immediately think of anywhere else I have heard “Registrar” employed. Students learn quickly that our Registrar’s Office does a fine job of setting up enrollment systems, guaranteeing course-credit where credit is due, tallying units of same so a student my gradate correctly. But where did they get their name?
Several British officials have held the title, including one roughly analogous to an American Justice of the Peace; this much I learned from the OED’s entry. Thus any official or office charged with keeping civil or clerical records could be a Registrar. In US parlance, however, I could think of only one use, for campus services concerning enrollment, graduation, and official records. Thank your college or university Registrar for the diploma hanging on the wall, or the transcript your employer requested. The OED has this usage dating to the early 18th Century. For other meanings, our word goes back to the 16th Century and probably earlier.
I just learned that jurisdictions have a Registrar of Voters, a thankless but essential duty if a democracy is to function well.
So when you call upon the Registrar this semester, thank them: their work makes this place possible as an official, degree-granting entity.
Let me give you a sense of the vital need for such services: I wish I had a photo of UVA Registar’s vast filing system from the 1980s; they provided the State of Virginia with my official transcript, proving my degree so I could take a tech-writing job for the Department of Corrections. My duties for DOC were proofreading and digitizing thousands of inmate records. We had the entire first floor of an office building dedicated to the task. We managed paper files, for over ten thousand incarcerated felons and an equal number out on parole; the files all moved about on an automated retrieval system. It included an advanced fire-suppression system that did not use water. Loss of records, none duplicated, would have been catastrophic. We’d have lost release dates, psychological profiles, and opinions by members of our Parole Board.
It was mind-numbing work, but we kept a supply of coffee handy and kept reminding ourselves that mistakes might delay a person’s release or hasten it. In a different DOC job a few months later, I had the wrong inmate show up at my office for a pre-parole interview. He admitted that he got a free ride in a police car and got to eat a meal at a different jail. He was a non-violent offender and very affable, but no one believed his story. I gave him a cup of coffee. The next day, we got the right guy in for his chat.
Today, an incorrect entry in an electronic record and be annoying, even damaging, but with backups on and off-site, one hope we can avoid chaos.
Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
Storage system photo courtesy of Police.com. Get one for your files at home! You know you need one!