My undergraduate alma mater (well, my first one, when I got my BFA in drama) is the University of Calgary. The campus was built in the mid-late 1960s, as were the neighbourhoods next to it, standard curvy-street suburban developments utterly typical of that sprawling hilly city (and many others). To the south is University Heights. To the north are Varsity Acres, Varsity Village, and Varsity Estates.
Those neighbourhoods were my first encounter with the word varsity. (I knew of them in my childhood, well before I went to university – a mall we often shopped at was right there too.) At first I didn’t know what it meant; I just took it as a name, like James or Calgary or Dalhousie (another neighbourhood in the area, and one we lived in for a year). Once I grew enough to learn that names came from somewhere and meant something, I knew that varsity referred to scholastic things, higher education – or rather the air and milieu of higher education, especially the sports.
Varsity, to me, is a word like a V-neck sweater with an athletic team name or letter or logo sewn onto it. (And this from a Canadian – you have to understand, collegiate sport means nothing to Canadians, and we are always at least a little nonplussed at the mania Americans have for it.) Its most common collocations are with sport things: junior varsity, varsity team, varsity athletes, and various specific sports such as varsity football. It can also be found in terms such as varsity cheer.
Athletics in higher education serve – or at least used to serve – a social function, an opportunity for group solidarity and boosterism. Places of education have an unavoidable social function, after all, and I think that’s good. As the saying goes, a university is a fountain of knowledge where students gather to drink. Perhaps varsity is a fountain of sports.
The words likewise have different flavours. University may be a place where you go to learn the classics and unlock the knowledge of the universe, a noble city of learning, with that cold but embracing U at its head and that unifying air of uni, even as it embraces diversity; varsity is more vibrant and aggressive, more rah-rah, more party, but also more class-conscious. It could be a word for varmints who just like team sports, but it could more readily be a word for the louche rich who go to Darby.
Sorry, I mean to Derby. Funny, that, how Derby came to be said as Darby. Well, not so funny, really; we may associate that sort of shift with a specific moneyed class in England, but it was common enough at one time. Person became parson (though we also kept the former); clerk became Clark (and those same upper-class types say clerk as “clark”); vermin became varmint (and then got taken up by certain people in the US); at one time mercy was said as “marcy” and certain as “sartain,” though those have not lasted generally. If this shift seems odd, then you haven’t been listening to many younger people (females even more than males) lately, especially among the university-educated set: a similar lowering is audible in many cases, making test sound like “tast,” for instance. It’s a quite unexceptional kind of sound shift.
It just happens to have become associated with a sartain, I mean certain, set in the case of varsity. Undoubtedly this has something to do with who would even be talking of varsity: those who could manage to go to one of the great universities of England, notably Cambridge and Oxford. It is they who have done the most to preserve this word, this aphetic and vowel-shifted variant of university, by having an annual extramural slaughter: the Varsity Match, a rugby game between Ox’ and ’Bridge. This casual, group-solidarity colloquial version of university persisted with the sports and spread to North America, while the precise and attentive university retained its reign over the institutions as a whole. In England, they shorten university to uni as they shorten television to telly; one might imagine that uni is where they learn and varsity where they play.
So in the classrooms and libraries we learn how university came to be varsity, while on the field they play varsity and chant and sing and drink and all that and care not a whit about the provenance of the word. But really they are the two sides of the university – north and south, if you will.