By April C. Armstrong *14
on behalf of “Mr. Mudd“
Dear Mr. Mudd,
My fiancé just noticed that my Princeton diploma spells “university” in Latin as “Vniuersitatis,” rather than “Universitatis.” We have searched, but haven’t been able to find an explanation for this (nor have we found an alternative Latin spelling). Could you tell us?
A Member of the Graduate Class of 2018
My answer will be less about Princeton and more about the history of Latin writing, though I can tell you that Princeton University has, in all examples I have seen since the name changed from the College of New Jersey in 1896, used the same general appearance for most of its diplomas (and may, indeed, be using the same fonts). Thus, “because we always did it that way” is part of the answer, but another part of the answer is that Princeton is aligning with a very old tradition by writing its name in this way on your diploma.
Princeton’s first diplomas were in Latin and written at least partially by hand; professional printing appears to have begun for them late in the 18th- or early in the 19th century.
When Latin was written by scribes, historically, what we would see as a V would often be used at the beginning of a word, and what we would see as a U would appear in the middle, if it was written at all (though the two were often fully interchangeable). The Latin alphabet had only 23 letters, so determining the sound that letter would make would be judged based on context. After the advent of printing, the use of U became more common, but in many cases would still be reserved for the middle of a word rather than the beginning; thus, we’d commonly see “valor” and “excuse” but also “haue” and “vpon.” Lazare Zetzner, an Italian printer, began using a capital “U” in his shop in 1629, and some say he was the first to do so, though some European documents show a capital U prior to that date. For more on the history of these two letters, please see Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany, by Laurent Pflughaupt.
Although it was certainly the case that printers were using a capital “U” by 1896, and that the “V” had made it into the middle of the word, Latin itself was not commonly in use in North America, and it appears most likely that Princeton is simply maintaining a traditional way of writing Latin. Thus, as strange as “Vniuersitatis” may look to modern English-speaking readers, it would have looked perfectly normal to a scholar of classical Latin.
This intention becomes all the more clear when one looks at the English diplomas represented in our collections. A Bachelor of Arts diploma is always written in Latin, while a Bachelor of Science diploma will typically be written in English. In English, “Vinuersitatis” shows up as “University,” just as you might expect.
We can also see an example in our collections that shows that when capitalized, the “u” in “Vinuersitatis” becomes a “V.” Military diplomas from 1918 were written in Latin, but in all caps, rendering the name of the institution as “VNIVERSITATIS PRINCETONIENSIS.”
I have not found sources that explicitly state this regarding Princeton’s diplomas, but I do feel confident that this is the most likely explanation. I hope that helps.
Pflughaupt, Laurent. Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.