Hazing: an Update

The house in Pennsylvania where Michael Deng, a student a Baruch College, died in a fraternity ritual. Photograph by Niko J. Kallianiotis, The New York Times, Redux



Stupid and brutal practices are not unknown in academe.

Among them (and the list may not be small), is the ritual of hazing. The term is less old than I thought. While the Oxford English Dictionary  provides an 1825 definition as “a sound beating, a thrashing,” it isn’t until a bit later in the 19th century that the dictionary of record identifies the term as we know it on campuses today.

Harvard Magazine complains of the “absurd and barbarous custom of hazing, which has long prevailed at the college.” But that was in 1860.

The OED’s only other two citations are to an 1892 hazing-related death at Yale, reported then in the Daily News, where hazing  is denounced in the strong terms with which this post began.

Two years later, in 1894, the Princeton entering class is reduced in size — an outcome, opines the same source, partly due to the “hazing outrages of recent years.”

Is that all there is to tell us? The online OED  warns the user that “this entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1898),” or rather it seems as if there has been no updating of hazing  at all since the 1898 publication.

The term hazing comes from the verb to haze, which has its roots in Old French and means “to affright,” a meaning that reaches back to 1678. It also means “to harass with overwork” (a nautical definition), and “to subject to cruel horseplay (as practised by American students).”

Linguistically, American students seem to have been subjecting one another to hazing at least since the 1860s. We are not alone. Readers familiar with Tom Brown’s School Days  will know that the English schools certainly kept up their part in the brutalization of fellow students, even if, on the evidence of the OED, they didn’t call it hazing.

The OED’s  language trail may run dry, but the practice of hazing continues to damage the little worlds we tend for the education of students. Young people come to campus for many reasons, but no one comes to us in order to be abused. Each hazing death — Chun (Michael) Deng at Baruch College, Tucker Hipps at Clemson, Robert Champion at Florida A&M, George Desdunes at Cornell — is more than a life lost, though it is, profoundly, that. It’s a demonstration of our inability to protect those — young adults they may be — who are in our care.

Talking about hazing  is part of what we can do, in the process putting to use the power of “language in academe” (which happens to be the slogan of Lingua Franca). Happily, there are many efforts at community engagement on this subject. The group, based at the University of New Hampshire, is only one initiative that seeks to educate families, students, and communities.

That’s our bit. But languagewise, here’s a gentle request that the OED give hazing a thorough update. There is much wreckage to record over the past century, and it’s no longer about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton alone.

Stupid and brutal. We still  have hazing as a rite of passage. There is no wrong of passage, though maybe the phrase’s time has come.


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