QA: “Gradation” vs “gradiation” vs “graduation”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're going to grad school…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about colour gradients.

A: What’s your question?

Q: Well, if a painting say goes from light to dark green, is that a “gradiation” or a “graduation” of colour?

A: Which do YOU think it is?

Q: Well gradient is to gradiation, like radiant is to radiation. So that one?

A: Nice idea, but remember, this is English we’re talking about.

Q: [Shakes fist at sky] Ennnnglisssh!

A: Hey, how did you get those square gesture parentheses in there?

Q: [Shrugs shoulders] I dunno…

A: Well, let’s put you out of you misery. There is actually NO such word as “gradiation” – despite it seeming like there should be.

Q: Oh wow. Okay. Although, now that I think about it, you are making “gradual” changes to the colour, so that does seem to favour “graduation” a lot more.

A: Oh, um, no. It’s not “graduation” either…

Q: Sorry, what now?

A: “Graduation” CAN be a measure of increments, but only in scientific contexts, such as scale markings on a beaker of liquid (sometimes even called a ‘graduated cylinder’). It was the alchemy labs of the 1400s where “graduation” was first cooked up – with the original meaning being “a tempering, a refining of something to a certain degree”.

Q: What about getting an academic degree?

A: That came along a little later in the 1400s – in fact, the whole thing of naming of it a “degree” suddenly makes sense if you think of it as an academic achievement – the “graduation” marking this attainment of a certain degree or measure.

Q: Yeah, I guess I’d never thought about why they’re called “degrees” before.

A: It would actually take until 1818 before the word “graduation” was applied to an actual ‘throw-your-caps-in-the-air” ceremony. And that’s typically what it is associated with now – reaching a certain level on the academic scale.

Q: But then what should I be using for painting?

A: The word you want there is “gradation”. It came to us from French in the 1530s – initially meaning “climax”, but quickly changing, rather ironically, to mean gradual change.

Q: Climax and gradual change are quite different concepts!

A: Well, the idea originally was that it was an orderly ascent, like climbing steps to the top/climax. Over time it became more figurative and simply a step toward something; a degree of something rising by stages. The opposite (going down the steps) would be “degradation”, and you can also find other ‘step-by-step’ words from this same root in the words “progression”, “digress” and even “ingredient”.

Q: All this step-by-step talk reminds me of being a kid trying to reach the top kitchen cupboards and yelling, “you’re not my REAL ladder!”…

A: ….

Q: It was my step ladder…

A: Hilarious. Actually, we did previously discuss why the term “step” is used for such family members in this conversation here.

Q: So, what do the dictionaries say about “gradation” and “graduation”?

A: Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary lists “gradation” as any process or change taking place through a series of stages, by degrees, or gradually. It also has a particular listing just for artists: the passing of one tint or shade of colour to another, or one surface to another, by very small degrees, as in painting, sculpture, etc. Meanwhile, they say that things such like the scale on a thermometer or measuring cylinder would be considered “graduation” or “graduated markings”.

Q: And the Americans agree? They love a good graduation.

A: They certainly do. And yes, they agree on the definitions.

Q: So to recap, you’d use “graduations” for giving out academic degrees and the specific measurements on scientific equipment.

A:  Correct.

Q: And “gradation” for the gradual change of things – which confusingly also happens ‘by degrees’ or stages.

A: Yeah, “graduation” gives out degrees or measures them, while “gradation” is a process that flows through differing degrees or states – e.g. colour. It’s a little confusing as the latter does deal with “gradual” changes, yet has no “u”… but that’s English for you!

Q: And “gradiation” is definitely NOT a word?

A: That’s right. Steer clear of it, just like you would for radiation.

Q: [Thrusts both fists in the air] I feel like I’ve just completed grad school!

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