Word Games: Ebacc

Michael Gove
Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images

It lends itself to headlines, I suppose: “Ebacc to the future”, and so on. But there is nothing very beautiful about the new exam name. Not that exam names have much form. GCSEs were things of acronymic hideousness. O-levels didn’t have much to recommend them either, poetically speaking. Because of the frequency of rechristening, each one now has a strangely specific resonance. O-levels are now symbols of middle age; GCSEs mark you out as that deeply unfashionable thing, a Nineties/Noughties teen. As for the Ebacc, well, you’re the future.

There’s abbreviation at work, needless to say. English Baccalaureate has been wisely condensed into a word we can spell and that takes less than a week to say out loud. It sounds all new-fangled and the politicians must love the “E”, the way it rings with modernity, like e-commerce and email and all the other virtual things they’re slowly getting their heads around.

It’s ironic given that “baccalaureate” dates back to the 1620s and means, literally, “university degree of a bachelor”. The word is so old that it recalls a time when only men could learn and we ladies stayed at home, weaving. It’s even older than that – the word stems from the Latin baccalaureatus, “student with the first degree”, which is apparently a play on the words bacca lauri, or “laurel berry”, as laurels were awarded for academic success.

Laurels still permeate the language – don’t rest on them, mostly. Sound advice for Michael Gove et al, whose Ebacc will trip in the potholes that have upended every exam created in this country. I spoke to a teacher the other night (research) and his response to the invention was the weariest shrug I’ve ever had the fortune to witness. Politicians come and go but he’ll just go on teaching.

Best (if uncertain) fact about the Ebacc? Apparently, they had originally called it the Ebac until they discovered that Ebac was the company name for a leading brand of dehumidifiers. And not just any dehumidifiers. “Cutting-edge technology in hydrophilic coils, coupled with our unique and innovative defrosting system, make Ebac dehumidifiers the most energy efficient on the market.” Does Gove’s Ebacc have an innovative defrosting system? Not even close.