Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Is It "School Board" or "Board of Education"?

It's been a while since I've written a column for this space, and in large part the hiatus has been due to my (successful) campaign for a seat on my local school board. Or board of education. Which is it? Is there a difference? I had to make this decision again and again, when I set up a campaign web page and Facebook page; when I had T-shirts, postcards, or yard signs printed; and whenever I rang a doorbell or made a phone call and said what I was running for.

Now that Election Day has come and gone, I've had a little more time to think about this question. My first stop, as usual, is the online Oxford English Dictionary, conveniently available through my local public library. Here's what it had to say: In the 1500s, the word board itself could refer a table where a council met, and by metonymy, the members of such a council. Its first attestation for that meaning is from 1623, in Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Board of directors dates from 1712; board of health, from 1796. According to data from the Google Books corpus, that's near the time that both board of education and school board made their first appearances. The earliest attestation that I've found for school board is from 1806; the earliest for board of education, from 1810.

According to the Google Books Ngram Viewer, both terms increased in frequency from the latter half of the 19th century until peaking in 1930. At that time board of education was twice as common as school board. After 1930, the graph shows the frequency for both terms decreasing, until an interesting thing happens around 1953. There, the lines on the Google Ngram graph cross, and board of education continues its decline for the rest of the 20th century. School board, meanwhile, continues to rise and fall, and is about as frequent now as it was for most of the 20th century.

So what happened in the mid-1950s that sent the two terms on their separate trajectories? We can get a clue by looking at the words most likely to appear with board of education and school board—their so-called collocates. Between 1950 and 2009, the top 10 collocates for board of education in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) are Topeka, v., superintendent, Brown, voted, 1954, Chicago, state, county, and yesterday. (These top 10 are ranked by their mutual information with board of education. The higher two words' mutual information, the lower the probability that their appearing together is simply due to chance.) Four of those collocates—Topeka, v., Brown, and 1954—are words with a clear connection to the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that ended de jure racial segregation in public schools. Of those four collocates, only v. is in the top 10 collocates prior to 1950. By comparison, half of the remaining six words in the post-1950 list (superintendent, Chicago, and county) also appear in the pre-1950 list. In other words, Brown v. Board of Education came in and took over three slots in the collocates list for board of education—and boosted the existing member v. from third chair to second. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which covers the years from 1990 through 2012, corroborates: Its top 10 collocates for board of education include Topeka, v., Brown, and 1954, plus landmark and vs.

How does all this compare with school board? It's a pretty clear difference. The top 10 post-1950 collocates for school board in COHA are parish, upheld, superintendent, administrators, voted, Orleans, county, members, integration, and elected. Of these, only two jump out as possibly litigation-related: upheld and integration. On closer inspection, though, neither of them turns out to be related to Brown. A couple of other collocates (parish, Orleans) have to do with a court case involving the Orleans Parish School Board in New Orleans. Of the remaining six, two also appear in the pre-1950 list (member(s), county), while the remaining four are a grab-bag of government-related words: superintendent, administrators, voted, elected. Words related to Brown don't turn up in the top 10 collocates in COCA, either—half of those 10 are Georgia place names; why, I don't know.

Overall, it looks like before 1950, board of education already tended to occur more in formal writing, such as lawsuits, than in other kinds of language, as evidenced by the fact that v. is one of its top 10 pre-1950 collocates, but doesn't appear in the top 10 pre-1950 collocates for school board. This is still true today: Although school board is more frequent than board of education in every section of COCA, the section where school board has the narrowest edge is academic writing. Brown v. Board of Education appears to have strengthened that tendency, possibly nudging speakers toward favoring an alternative to board of education when lawsuits were not involved.

None of this research gave me an answer to another question I had: Why don't people say education board, or board of school? Actually, as it turns out, they do, although it's rare. There are 57 hits in COHA for education board. And as for board of school, a fellow parent in our district tells me that his son says that all the time: "Every day, he comes home and says he's board of school!"

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.