Illiterate Lexicology Episode 1: ‘Commencement’

by Erica Cai and Irene Yuan

This is the first installment of Illiterate Lexicology, a podcast where Aquila staff members delve into the history and evolution of words. In this episode, Erica and Irene explore the word “commencement.” 

Irene: Hello, and welcome to Illiterate Lexicology, a new podcast where we wander among words, swim around sentences, and dissect definitions. We’re your hosts, 

Erica: Erica

Irene: and Irene. 

Erica: For our first episode, we will kick off with “commencement.”

Irene: But first,

“Weekly Wacky Word” intro 

Irene: “Weekly wacky word” is our segment where every week we talk about words that stood out to us that we have heard in usage in this past week or so.

Erica: So, Irene. How are you doing today?

Irene: Well, I’m feeling “whelmed.”

Erica: “Whelmed?” I thought we were discussing real words on this podcast. 

Irene: It is a real word. If  you can be “overwhelmed” or “underwhelmed,” you can definitely be just “whelmed.” Just because you didn’t hear it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For example, in AP Lit last week, Mr. Slivka taught us the word “liminal.” I had only heard “subliminal” before that.

Erica: Did you know that out of the three words: “whelm,” “overwhelm” and “underwhelm,” “whelm” and “overwhelm” have both been in usage since Middle English when they were “whelmen” and “overwhelmen?” But “underwhelmed” did not become a thing until around 1950. So really, it’s strange now that we hear “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed” more often now, but not “whelmed.”

Irene: You know why? It’s probably misleading because both “whelmed” and “overwhelmed” mean “to overturn.” “Whelmed” is technically not…it doesn’t have that middle meaning. “Whelmed” is more like “overwhelmed” than it is like between “overwhelmed” and “underwhelmed.” Now that we have “underwhelmed” and “overwhelmed,” I feel people are using it to be less overwhelmed than “overwhelmed,” but still “whelmed.” So have you heard any wacky word usage over the past week? 

Erica: Actually, I have, but this time, it really is not a real word. My “weekly wacky word” is “dranken.” I always get confused because you can say “drank”—wait, can you? Is “drank” a word? No, yeah, I drank a glass of water. So you have “drank,” you have “drunk” and you have “drunken.” Do you have “drunken?” I think you do have “drunken.”

Irene: I do have “drunken.”

Erica: Yeah, but you don’t have “dranken.” And actually, I think that we should make “dranken” a word just because I use “dranken” all the time. And I don’t want to get shamed anymore. 

Irene: That’s like— 

Erica: For using a word that doesn’t exist.

Irene: That’s like “sank,” “sunk,” but there’s no “sanken.”

Erica: Wait, we should actually have a word that is “sanken.” That just sounds so much better than “sunken.” 

Irene: A “sanken” ship? 

Erica: A “sanken” ship. You can have sunken eyes, you know? Sunken eyebags because I feel like “sunken”…it just sounds… 

Irene: It sounds shriveled up. 

Erica: Yeah. But “sanken” has like a more airy feel to it. Therefore, a “sanken” ship. 

Irene: Definitely go take that up with Merriam Webster. 

Erica: Yeah, that should just be a new grammatical thing. 

Irene: Definitely. 100%. Let us know in the comments what other words should be words. But now, onto our next segment. 

“Rooting out the Roots” intro 

Irene: So, this is our segment, where each week, one of us brings to the podcast recording session a long word that has multiple stems and the other person has to guess what it means.

Erica: Yes, and today, Irene will be presenting a word and telling me what the roots are and I will have to guess its meaning. 

Irene: The word of this week is “omphaloskepsis.”


Irene: So, to break it down: “omphalos” means “navel” and “skepsis” means “examination.” So the two parts of the word you know are things that mean “navel” and “examination.”

Erica: Omphaloskepsis…isn’t it just naval examination then? 

Irene: Yes, but– it is navel examination. But there is a purpose for this navel examination. 

Erica: Oh, I see. You know what? Because we were talking about “sanken” ships earlier, what if it means something like after a ship has sunk you go in and examine to make sure there’s no ghosts?

Irene: That’s a really good guess. But unfortunately, that is not the definition of “navel” that I was going for.

Erica: Oh, oh, your navel.

Irene: Navel like your body part.

Erica: Where is your—? 

Irene: I don’t know, I’m not taking Honors Human Anatomy and Physiology. 

Erica: Me neither. I guess we can’t be happy. Then it must be an examination of the body to make sure everything is functioning. 

Irene: So actually, you know, the examination and the navel, you know, you got that.

Erica: Because you handed it to me. 

Irene: But it’s actually—the definition is “the contemplation of one’s navel as an aid to meditation.” And then there’s another meaning, which means “lack of will to move, exert or change.”

Erica: Oh, I feel that.

Irene: Yeah. So you know, I think as seniors we often feel “omphaloskepsis.” 

Erica: Omphaloskepsis but make it senioritis. 

Irene: Yeah, but I think it’s mostly the meditation term. But that makes sense, because you have meditation where you’re kind of introspective? You’re not moving, not because you have a lack of will to, but you have that same sense of, you know, you’re staying in one place, you’re not really…I mean, meditation is very slow-paced; you’re not active. 

Erica: Right. Omphaloskepsis. 

Irene: Yeah

Erica: There you go, folks. 

Irene: But do you have any words you know of that use “omphalos?” 

Erica: No, actually, because I’m not big brain like you.

Irene: Yeah, you know, I don’t really either. But, you know, in this article, it says, one is “omphaloid,” which is “resembling a navel.” 

Erica: It seems like “omphalos” has its own definition, which means “a focal point” 

Irene: Which makes sense because the navel is— is it the focal point of the back? Can you search up where the navel is? I think it’s here [points at the small of her back]

Erica: Where is the naval?

Irene: It’s spelled E L, dude.

Erica: We should keep that in there. N A V E L: a small depression in the abdominal wall.

Irene: Navel? Yeah, small…Oh, okay, that makes sense. It’s in the front, not the back. You know why I thought—

Erica: So it’s basically the belly button, then.

Irene: You know why I thought it was the back? Because Percy Jackson, when he gets dipped in the River Styx, he— his Achilles’ weakness—Achilles’ heel—is his back, the small of his back. But when it’s described, it’s described as “small of the back opposite the navel.” I remember the word “navel” from Percy Jackson, but I don’t remember the opposite part. 

Erica: Very nice. 

Irene: So I thought the small of the back was the navel. Well, you know, we learn biology as well as lexicology on this podcast. 

Erica: The more you know. After we rooted out the roots, let’s move on to:

“Word of the Week” intro 

Erica: So because this episode is our first episode, we decided to go with the word “commencement”

C O M M E N C E M E N T 

because we thought that it meant 

Irene: To begin, to start. You know, commence means begin, right? So commencement: to begin…thought it was relatively self-explanatory. 

Erica: But when we searched up what a commencement was, we found out that it’s essentially, I guess, the opposite of a matriculation? Where it goes at the end of a school year to commence graduates into their next chapter of life. 

Irene: So the commencement is in May.

Erica: So it’s not really the beginning of the beginning. It’s the beginning of the end. No, it’s the end of the beginning. Wait, hold on now… It celebrates the 

Irene: Beginning of a new chapter. 

Erica: Yes, the beginning of a new chapter. There we go. To commence comes from Old French and it does mean “a beginning.” But commencement means a school graduation ceremony. It goes at the end of the school year. 

Irene: What I find interesting—it comes from Old French right? But I was reading somewhere that the earliest commencement speakers delivered their speeches in Latin. So the word is from French, but we…the speeches were in Latin. 

Erica: That’s very funny because I’m guessing that only the person delivering the speech actually understood what they were saying, because not everyone knows Latin. So I believe that the audience members, the graduates, would be handed copies of the speech translated into English and it would be annotated on when to laugh in hopes that they would impress the rest of the audience that all of the students were fluent in Latin. 

Irene: Yeah, there was… I remember in history we learned a lot about Bibles only being available in Latin so the common people couldn’t read it. It was only the Pope and the hierarchical people in the church who could read the Bibles because they were in Latin and that was like, you know, the scholarly language. 

Erica: But I guess now the scholarly language is

Irene: is dead. Oh. I— I thought you meant like Latin was a dead language, dude. 

Erica: Is there anything else that you want to add about commencement? 

Irene: Honestly, there’s not much more to go into like the definition, but I think the most interesting part is the definition of the word versus the definition of the ceremony that is defined by the word 

Erica: is different. 

Irene: Yeah.

Erica: Or they’re opposites, actually.

Irene: Yeah, because what? Matriculation means to matriculate, which means “to enroll as a member of a body and especially of a college or university.” 

Erica: So really, matriculation doesn’t even mean beginning. To commence means “to begin,” but then a commencement is a signal at the end of your college years. 

Irene: Wow. Then what does Baccalaureate mean? I know you have poet laureates and you have— you get like a laurel for winning a prize 

Erica: Nobel Laureates. 

Irene: Yeah. But what is a baccalaureate?

Erica: “The degree of bachelor conferred by universities and colleges.” 

Irene: But we’re a high school. 

Erica: That’s very interesting. So even a baccalaureate ceremony has a different meaning than what “baccalaureate” means. 

Irene: What does Baccalaureate ceremony mean?

Erica: Well it’s just held the evening before graduation ceremony usually. 

Irene: Okay, so in conclusion, honestly, you shouldn’t even conclude that commencement doesn’t mean the same thing as a ceremony. You should just conclude that ceremony names don’t follow the definition of the word at all. Hope you took something away. It could have been anything: it could have been “whelmed,” it could have been the definition of our main word. Hope, hope you had either some takeaway from this, or just had fun listening to us ramble on. If there are any cool words you want us to cover next, feel free to email us at [email protected]. Don’t forget to tune in to our next episode of Illiterate Lexicology. 

Erica: Erica

Irene: and Irene

Both: Word out.

With music by Spencer Cha (12).