Why Not Kings College? Tracking Columbia Etymologies

Correction appended.

The name "Columbia University in the City of New York" was adopted in 1896 under the administration of University president Seth Low. But many students are left guessing when asked about the name's origins.

"I never took a tour, so no," said Tyson Brody, CC '09. "Let's see, Columbia, King's College... I'd say Columbus."

Despite the similarities, no one person was inspiration for the university's renaming.

"Columbia was named in 1784 as an alternative to King's College," said Barnard history professor Robert McCaughey, who wrote Stand, Columbia. "The attitude was that it relates to the new world."

After the American Revolution, "King's College" had a decidedly pro-British sound to it, while the University wanted to show support for the new republic. Columbia, a Latinate word for the United States, fit perfectly.

Barnard College's namesake, on the other hand, was a little more corporeal. Frederick A. P. Barnard was born in 1809 and served as president of Columbia University (then called Columbia College) from 1864 to 1889. He was an American mathematician who "was an advocate of female education," according to McCaughey. Though Barnard supported the implementation of coeducation in the college, his name was an obvious choice when the school was founded.

But Frederick Barnard is not the only notable Columbian to leave his name etched in stone. The names of former University presidents Seth Low and Nicholas Murray Butler grace the buildings that have served as the campus' two main libraries at various points.

Alumni are by far the winners of the name game. Beyond the most obvious names like John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Alfred Lerner and Roone Arledge, others, like Royal Blackler Furnald and Michael Pupin will live on even if the "Pupin coil" and other such legacies are forgotten.

Finally, there are those who donated money even though they never attended Columbia. Dodge Hall owes its name to the industrial tycoon William Earl Dodge; the Mailman School of Public Health to businessman and philanthropist Joseph Mailman; and the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library to the young architect, Henry Ogden Avery.

The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science has perhaps undergone the greatest number of changes. Once known as the School of Mines in 1863 and then the School of Mines, Engineering and Chemistry, it became the School of Engineering and Applied Science until 1997, when it was named after Chinese businessman Z. Y. Fu. Though he never attended Columbia, Fu donated $26 million to SEAS.

Of name-neglected buildings like Mathematics and Philosophy halls, McCaughey said: "They are probably open for naming."

Correction: "Why Not Kings College? Tracking Columbia Etymologies" (Sept. 14) contained incorrect informaton about the name of Low Library. The library was named for former University President Seth Low's father, Abiel Abbot Low.

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