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It’s appropriate that students are being called back to classes at this time of year.
The word class in this sense means “classroom” or “lecture.”
The reason I say that it is appropriate students are being called is that the word class has an etymology that appears to lead back to being called.
The first time class was applied to the room in which education is delivered was in 1870 but as might be guessed from Greek and Latin being called classical languages the roots of class go quite a bit further back than 1870.
Thomas Blount included the word in his 1656 dictionary Glossographia saying both that it was a social division of people and that it referred to the division of students within a school; the latter being the more frequent use according to him.
It was a meaning of social divisions of people into a hierarchy that the Latin parent word classis referred to.
This meaning ran back to Servius Tullius who was king of Rome about 2,600 years ago.
For tax purposes he divided his society into six groups based on land holdings.
Part of what a person owed the state was military service and the word used to describe these six groups evolved out of the same word used to mean a soldier was being “called up.”
That’s why students being called back to their classrooms is etymologically appropriate.
The reason that ancient Greek and Roman are termed classical is the same reason that a rich or stylish person might be called classy. Although there were six classes in Rome during Tullius’ time, it is the top tier that gets paid the most attention and so class became associated with being first.
When English adopted the word class from French around 400 years ago Greek and Roman were seen as “the original” languages and so were tagged with this “first” meaning.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.