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How It's Done At the Oldest US College

The word "commencement" comes from the Latin inceptio or "beginning" - the initiation ceremony for new scholars being inducted into the fellowship of university teachers in medieval Europe.

Samuel Eliot Morison, a Harvard historian, puts the New World's first college commencement exercise at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. - six years after the nation's oldest college was founded in 1636.

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Vestiges of those days when Latin reigned remain at Harvard today. One graduating senior is still chosen annually to give a short commencement speech entirely in Latin.

But time has added a wicked little twist to tradition. Today's speech is often a thinly veiled jibe at what some might view as the occasional pomposity of the Harvard experience.

The 1996 speech was a tongue-in-cheek exposition on "The Harvardian Character."

A phrase from last year's speech by Brian Dunkle, given in both Latin and grade-school pig-Latin, is translated as follows:

"With no one understanding Latin, you could say 'ellow-fay udents-stay ongratulations-cay,' still with the applause of the mindless crowd," the intrepid Mr. Dunkle told parents and professors, who sat mostly mum.

Not so, however, the cap-and-gowned seniors in attendance - who burst into applause and laughter. But certainly not because their erudition enabled them to understand what Dunkle was saying.

Another Harvard graduation tradition, it seems, is that seniors get a crib sheet for this particular speech. Only they, the orator, and those few who actually know Latin know what is being said from the commencement podium. Particularly helpful are the "laugh" and "applause" marks in the text that allow seniors to appear more sage even than the ermine-collar-clad professors onstage.

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