gaudeamus: merry-making by college students

Penguin statues dressed as graduates
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Penguin statues dressed up to celebrate graduation day


Turn on the spigot
Pour the beer and swig it
And gaudeamus igit-
(uh) -tur

Tom LehrerBright College Days” (1959)*

Gaudeamus is the first-person plural present active subjunctive of the Latin verb gaudeo, “to rejoice”—so it means “let us rejoice”. It’s the first word of a thirteenth-century Latin drinking song (referred to by Tom Lehrer in the quote above), which is how it came by its largely archaic meaning in English—Latin plus drinking implies (or at least used to imply) merry college students.

Here’s how it goes:

Gaudeamus igitur
Iuvenes dum sumus.
Post iucundam iuventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.

Let us rejoice, therefore,
While we are young.
After a pleasant youth
After a troublesome old age
The earth will have us.

It’s usually known as Gaudeamus Igitur, from its opening line, but its real title is De Brevitate Vitae (“On The Shortness Of Life”). And that is a rather subversive reference to an essay of the same title written by the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, during the first century AD. Seneca, being a stoic, was keen to urge us not to fritter away our short lives on frivolous activities. Whereas the Gaudeamus Igitur song uses the shortness of life as an excuse to get in a bit of drinking while you’re young.

I was reminded of this during the recent graduation season in my home town, when I discovered that a choir was going to perform De Brevitate Vitae as part of the graduation ceremony. I spent the rest of the day smiling gently at the thought of all those graduands and their loved ones sitting at solemn attention through a song about how they really needed to get in a bit of celebration early because we’ll all soon be dead. And I suspect that, as soon as someone points out the content of verse six, the performance will be quietly dropped from future graduations:

Vivant omnes virgines,
Faciles, formosae!
Vivant et mulieres,
Tenerae, amabiles,
Bonae, laboriosae.

Long live all young women,
Easy and beautiful!
Long live wives as well,
Tender, loveable,
Honest, hard-working.

The association of gaudeamus with students having a party spawned the noun gaudie (or gaudy) for a university celebration, which still has some currency if you know where to look. At Oxford University it designates a reunion feast for alumni—hence the title of Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery novel, Gaudy Night (1935). Whereas at my alma mater, Dundee University, Gaudie Night involves senior students taking newly arrived “freshers” out on the town to entertain them. (I’m told that drink is sometimes taken.) The process has its own technical terms—the senior student is a “senior woman” or “senior man”; the first-year student they take under their wing is a bejant (female, bejantine), derived rather charmingly from French bec jaune, “yellow beak”, meaning a young bird.

The verb gaudeo has a companion noun gaudium, “joy”. Between them, they’re the origin of the noun gaud. This used to mean “trick” or “prank”, but shaded first into “toy” or “plaything” before acquiring the meaning “showy ceremony”. Today, it packages hints of all its former meanings together, designating something that is flashily ornamental. It’s a shame that gaud-glorious has fallen into disuse—it’s an evocative adjective to describe a person or thing that is extremely showy. In its place we now have just plain gaudy, which doesn’t do the job quite as well, in my opinion. And a gaudery is a gaudy show, or a show of gauds.

If you are joyful, you are gaudful, gaudious or gaudibund; if you speak joyfully, you are gaudiloquent. But something gaudless is without ornament, not without joy.

The plural of gaudium is gaudia, which became French joie, and so English joy. And some invoke gaudium as the origin of Old French joel, which gave us jewel—but the Oxford English Dictionary describes that as “a matter of dispute”. The OED is similarly non-committal about the possibility that gaudium was the origin of Old French jolif, which gave us jolly—a word I’ve previously written about. More likely, perhaps, is that jolif derives from Old Norse jól, the origin of our word Yule, which I’ve also previously written about. And on that note of self-advertisement, I’ll sign off.

* Oh, if you insist. Here’s the song:

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