Sunday, June 07, 2009

On Mortarboards

I'm in a silly mood. Today is Graduation Day.

Diplomas. Speeches. Mortarboards.

Mortarboards? What's the story there?

The mortarboard is generally believed by scholars to have developed from the biretta, a similar-looking hat worn by Roman Catholic clergy. The biretta itself may have been a development of the Roman pileus quadratus, a type of skullcap with superposed square and tump and is now known as the Bishop Andrewes cap. The mortarboard may also have been influenced by practices in Islamic madrassas. It was originally reserved for holders of master degrees (the highest qualification in mediƦval academia), but was later adopted by bachelors and undergraduates. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries corner-cap (catercap in the Marprelate tracts) was the term used (OED).

Thank you, Wikipedia.

I still think they look silly.

As my teacher friend Bob said, "Look how smart I am: I wear upon my head the stupidest piece of apparel humanity has ever produced."


  1. That is so crazy. I was thinking the same thing as the kids trooped the line in graduation today. One of them also asked me why the teachers wear "capes." I told them it was to show our college degrees and school colors. But I didn't know why they were all lined in blue felt. Now I do, it is the color of education degrees (mine should be white - fine arts). There is a wikipedia article about it too.

    Mortarboards are weird.

  2. I hardly ever get to wear my mortarboard and academic hood. I wish I did. It's fun to get dressed up in silly clothes.

    And the mortar board isn't the silliest garment ever devised. That honor belongs to the hats the members of the board of trustees wear at my college...

  3. But the term "mortarboard" ... isn't that because it resembles the board once used by masons to mix and hold mortar or grout while laying bricks? Or is that just another urban myth?

  4. It's not a myth... they resemble mortar boards, so that's what the hats are called.

    I think it's interesting that all the academic hoods are lined with blue felt. I have two masters degrees, and one of them is lined with scarlet (divinity) and the other is lined with white for liberal arts.

    Of course, my school doesn't even wear them for graduation, so it's pretty much a moot point.


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