Etymology of University

A university is often described as an educational institution that offers higher learning to its students (and gives degrees in the process). It is also a place where research is done. For example, Stanford University has an undergraduate research program with many well-equipped facilities such as studios, laboratories and libraries.

For most people, getting that all-important degree is the primary purpose of going to university.

The difference between a college and a university is simple: colleges are smaller institutions that usually only offer undergraduate degrees. Universities are institutions of higher learning that pave the way towards a Ph.D. Or a master’s degree.

The oldest modern university is the University of Bologna, which originally belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. It is currently in Bologna, Italy and dates back to Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa. Another famous and old university is the acclaimed University of Oxford, in existence since at least 1096.


Latin has several words that indicate an institution of higher learning.

The words academia and academiae are one example; they mean academy though they can also be used for university. An athenaeum is a place of study or a school.

AnĀ athenaeum maius (maius = greater) is a university, literally greater school.

These can’t quite be considered the root of the word university though. The Latin words universitas and universitatis are generally thought of as the source of the word university.

These words are derived from universus / universeum / universa, meaning universe or universal.

Universus, in turn, is a combination of uni (one) and versus (turned).

Thus: turned into one.

This Latin word later eventually evolved into the Old French universite, which later became the English university.


Murray, John. An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. 1921.