40. Phi Beta Delta: Of Chapters and Columns

The word "chapter" is very ancient. In Latin it had among other meanings, the top or head of a column. In the Middle Ages the word begins to be used for the meetings of the canons or governors of a cathedral -- and one wonders if there is some sort of transfer of meaning from the architecture of cathedrals to the meetings of the canons -- something such as "meeting by the headed columns" morphing over the centuries to mean meetings of the chapter. On the other hand, some scholars think that since the canons would read aloud, the transfer of the meaning of chapter to divisions of a book had already occurred and was then given to the meetings in the cathedral. So it is a rather mysterious word when it comes to tracing its antecedents.

In any event, in 1305 we find St. Edmund writing about a chapter meeting of the cathedral at Salisbury. By 1681, the word had enlarged in meaning and was being used for meetings of orders -- the 1681 reference is to a session or chapter of the Order of the Garter. In the eighteen century, Thomas Dunkerville, the illegitimate son of King George III, was designating groups of Royal Arch Masons as chapters, not lodges. This usage has continued: the Royal Arch degrees are to this day organized by chapters.

In the early nineteenth century, the word became popular with the founders of the various Greek societies. And so we in Phi Beta Delta, heirs to the Greek tradition, meet in chapters and not in clubs. It is perhaps a little difference, but one worth remembering and one that our members should know about.

prev next