At the end of the month, I’ll retire from my teaching job. My university will add me to its list of emeritus faculty, with all the special privileges that new rank entails. Emeritus faculty retain an email account, enabling me to keep up with campus news, scintillating all-faculty debates, and student requests for recommendations. Emeritus faculty also get complimentary parking and library privileges. And emeritus faculty have the opportunity to continue to work on campus committees (I’ll pass on that one).
The emeritus title is not only used by academic institutions: you can find it in business (president emeritus, chairperson emeritus, CEO-emeritus, director emeritus), the clergy (pastor emeritus, rabbi emeritus, bishop emeritus, and now even pope emeritus), and elsewhere (archivist emeritus, judge emeritus, librarian emeritus). The usual style is for the adjective emeritus to follow the noun when it is used with a name. Emeritus works like alumnus, with the plural form emeriti and feminine forms emerita (singular) and emeritae (plural). Emeritus and emeriti are often used in a gender-neutral way but usage and personal preferences vary, so it’s wise to check your institution’s style guide or consult the emeritus individual themself.
When I received the letter from the Provost granting me emeritus status, I naturally got curious about the etymology. I knew what a demerit was and a had a vague recollection of scouting merit badges. There is also the increasingly contentious notion of meritocracy, and the totally unrelated word meretricious, a flashy way of saying “flashy” or “tawdry.”
I asked a colleague if she thought emeritus meant having extra merit. She looked at me appraisingly, shook her head, and said “No, clearly not.”
Perhaps the first letter of emeritus, the e-, was related to ex- and indicated someone formerly having merit, but now a superannuated has-been. Would I be an ex-professor? Would people be coming up to me and asking “Didn’t you used to be …?”
Finally, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary to sort all this out. It turns out that the e– in emeritus is a variant of Latin ex, but not in the sense of former like ex-president or ex-husband or ex-con. It is the ex of ex officio, ex cathedra, ex nihilo or ex libris, meaning “from” or “out of.” So, emeritus is a past participle (like retired) meaning literally “from service” or “having done sufficient service” (the OED even suggests the gloss, “having served out one’s time,” though I don’t like the connotation).
There is even a related rare and obsolete verb that the OED cites, to emerit, meaning “To obtain by service, deserve.” Just one example is given, from 1648: “The persons that … shall have emerited their pardons.”
Emerit is making something of a comeback, though as a noun: in 2022, the University of Wisconsin at Madison Faculty Senate adopted it as the gender-neutral form, as did the University of Oregon. And Oregon State University now allows faculty members to choose among emeritus, emerita, or emerit.
As for emeritus, it made its way into English in the seventeenth century, where it was used for clergy and professors. The earliest example I could spot in a newspaper data base was this, from The Caledonian Mercury in Edinburgh, Scotland in February of 1736:
Mr. Andrew Ross, of the University of Glasgow, Humanity-Professor Emeritus, being at present here, and invited by the Gentlemen of the College of Justice and Others, to give a presentation or two upon such parts of the Roman authors on which he has anything new to say;
The last few words made me smile. I, for one, am planning to have plenty of new things to say.
Featured image: “Churchill Hall, Southern Oregon U” by Finetooth. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.