Since I’m out of the office today (And I hate being out of the office), I am cramming to put out articles. And Will offered me a good idea for one. He wanted to know the difference between the words “diploma” and “degree.” I thought it was pretty obvious. A diploma is a physical document. A degree is the level of mastery that one has attained in a given field of study. One is given a diploma to recognize a PhD, but the PhD is a degree. I related this to Will, but by that time, he had made his way over to Difference Between and determined that I was wrong.
I disagree. Difference Between makes bizarre distinctions that are not at all common. It says, for example, “The tenure of a degree course can be around 3-4 years based on the geographical location while one can complete a diploma within 1-2 years.” All I could think is, “You have got to be kidding!” Merriam-Webster doesn’t agree; it defines diploma as “a document which shows that a person has finished a course of study or has graduated from a school.” Not good enough? How about Oxford, “A certificate awarded by an educational establishment to show that someone has successfully completed a course of study.” Oxford is good enough to inform us that “diploma” comes to us through Latin from the Greek word “diplōma,” which means “folded paper.” Fowler doesn’t even mention the word except to indicate what the plural is, “The plural is always –mas in the ordinary senses (certificate of degree etc), though –mata lingers in unusual senses (State paper etc) as an alternative.”
“Degree” is rather easier. I mean, the word describes measurement. You fall in love suddenly and out of love by degrees. (Did I mention that I’ve been depressed recently?) So logically, an academic degree should be a measure of attainment. And indeed, Merriam-Webster defines the word “a title conferred on students by a college, university, or professional school on completion of a program of study.” It provides three other minor variations that make my argument look even better. Oxford is similar, “An academic rank conferred by a college or university after examination or after completion of a course of study, or conferred as an honor on a distinguished person.”
So if you want a degree in pedantry, go over to spend a few months at Difference Between. Then, at a cocktail party, you can impress everyone by saying things like, “You don’t have an Associates degree you have an Associates diploma or if more than one, diplomata. Don’t be embarrassed; it’s a common mistake.” It is best that you be wearing an ascot when you say it. That really sells the deal. But if you want a diploma in pedantry, I’m not sure where you go to get one. Although, I think my PhD diploma is a good facsimile.
As a matter of fact, I have lost my PhD diploma. If I want to, I can contact my school and get the diploma replaced. This is because I earned the degree of PhD. It is not something they can take away from me, much as they may want to.