Valedictorian Etymology

Today I was reading Fulton Sheen’s book Life of Christ when I came across the word “valedictory” and I had no clue as to its meaning. That is what happens when you read Sheen, he is going to lay some big words on you and you are going to learn something along the way.

Sheen was referring to Mary’s command at the wedding of Cana to the wine stewards, “Do whatever he tells you.” These are the last words of the mother of Christ recorded in scripture. And being so, they are a clue to the meaning of the word “valedictory.”

When I want to understand the meaning and origin of a word, many times I consult the online etymology dictionary. So I looked up “valedictory” and I learned it means “departing words.” Ok, that makes sense; Sheen is referring to Mary’s departing words.

Intrigued, I dig a little deeper. Valedictorian is a common word stemming from the word valedictory. It means one who speaks departing words. Digging a little deeper, the Latin root words are Valere – “be strong” (like valor) and Dicere – “to say” (like diction).

Again, I had no idea that the job of valedictorian literally is to tell departing classmates at commencement to “be strong.” I thought it was just an honorific bestowed on the student with the highest GPA. I learned something new today.

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