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Thursday, June 02, 2005
  Valedictorian or Salutatorian: What's the Difference?


Graduation speech trivia question: what's the difference between valedictory and salutatory? At first pause, you might think (as I did) that a valedictorian commencement speech is given by the top ranking senior at graduation, and that the salutatorian address is the duty of the second banana. But it ain't necessarily so....

According to my Merriam Webster Page-a-Day calendar, here's the real scoop on the word "valedictory".


valedictory adj: of or relating to an act of bidding farewell: expressing or containing a farewell.
And on the "did you know" side of the calendar, we have this:


"Valedictory addresses delivered by earnest young valedictorians at high school and college graduations are as much a rite of spring in the United States as Memorial Day. While we cannot say where the first valedictory address was given, we do know that the word was an institution at places like Harvard and Yale by the mid-1700s. Since a valedictory speech is given at the end of an academic career, it is perfectly in keeping with the meaning of its Latin ancestor, valedicere, which means "to say farewell."


So, let's look up "valedictorian" at Merriam Webster Online. Here, we have:


valedictorian noun: the student usually having the highest rank in a graduating class who delivers the valedictory address at the commencement exercises.

It would appear that the meaning of the root verb "valedictory" got changed quite a lot when it became a noun! And the same is true of the word salutatory. At Merriam Webster, the dictionary definition is:


salutatory adj: of or relating to a salutation : expressing or containing a welcome or greeting.

But when we look up the word "salutatorian", we get this:


salutatorian noun: the student usually having the second highest rank in a graduating class who delivers the salutatory address at the commencement exercises.


Note the word "usually" prefaces the definition in both valedictorian and salutatorian. Giving the valedictory speech to the high ranking senior has simply become a tradition, and has nothing to do with the original meaning of the word.


A valedictorian says farewell. A salutatorian says welcome. It is only a relatively recent tradition to look at class rank and standing to determine who gives the valedictorian and who gives the salutatorian address.


Like the Beatles said, "You say goodbye, and I say hello!"


Let me ask you this: How many people are going to see a valedictory or salutatory PowerPoint presentation at a commencement exercise this month? ;)


Happy graduation!

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