Word of the Day



a hat with a stiff square top, worn as a sign of academic achievement. Mortarboards were traditionally worn by teachers.

Origin and usage

It is thought that the word mortarboard, used to describe an academic cap from the mid-1800s onwards, has a literal origin based on its resemblance to the square board used by stonemasons to carry mortar. Earlier versions of the word include ‘mortar cap’ in the late 1600s and ‘morter’ from the French ‘mortier’, again meaning ‘mortar’.


The square-shaped academic cap known as a mortarboard, also sometimes called an Oxford cap, is a ceremonial accessory used in academic dress. It consists of a skull cap with a flat board fixed to the top and a tassel which extends over the edge of the board from the centre of the cap. In North America and the UK, mortarboards have become a standard accessory for academic ceremonies where robes are worn, and this combination is known commonly as a cap and gown. A hood may also be worn as a part of this ensemble.

A hat worn by clergy in the Roman Catholic church, known as a ‘biretta’, is thought to have been the source of the modern mortarboard since this type of hat was worn by students, artists and youth in general. The first version of this style of cap as worn by scholars was donned by masters of the highest echelons of academia in the earliest educational institutions. Eventually, mortarboards came to be widely adopted by those receiving bachelor’s or master’s degrees or doctorates, and even high school graduates.


“There is something about a mortarboard that gives otherwise sane and normal people the overwhelming urge to burden you with advice. Some of them cannot help themselves. They were asked to do it by a committee. But one can only take so many pieces of wisdom before they all start to blur together.”

(Alexandra Petri)


cap, hat, headpiece

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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