A recent newspaper article gave credit for a school’s higher test scores to its principle. What powerful guiding principle governs this academy’s tutelage, I wondered. We should find out and glean wisdom from it. Could it be “Know thyself” or perhaps “The unexamined life is not worth living”? Or maybe “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? Reading further I discovered that this school’s principle is Shirley B. McFarland.
As you all realize, Shirley is the principal of the school, and while she may espouse noble principles and even impart them to her students, she herself is not one. The words stem from the same Latin roots: primus (“first”) and capere (“to take”). Principal, as an adjective meaning “most important,” directly from the Latin principalis, was used from the 12th century; by the 13th century it was a noun meaning the person who is the head of an organization. Principle, which is always a noun, meaning “rule, law, doctrine, code of conduct,” has also been in use since the 13th century, having come to English via a detour through Middle French principe.
As the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary sagely advises: “If you are unsure which noun you want, read the definitions in this dictionary.” Now why didn’t someone think of that sooner?
Leave it to the mostly unprincipled Bard of Buffalo Bayou to make the ultimate superfluous comment:
I’m so confused about principal / principle—
I think my ignorance must be invinciple.