Semantic inflation in campus building names

At the University of Connecticut last week, in Storrs, I observed semantic growth of morbid proportions.

As you can see for yourself, what was formerly the Infirmary is now the “Hilda May Williams Student Health Services.” Six words where one used to do. Of particular semiotic interest:

  • The name of the donor building’s namesake is very prominent, though Hilda May, alas, didn’t merit having her name engraved in stone over the doorway. I guess “Infirmary” was already there and this new six-word moniker wouldn’t have fit anyway. [Update: I initially assumed that Williams was a donor, since who else gets to name campus buildings, these days? UConn does have a number of recent buildings and even schools named for donors – such as the Neag School of Education, the Katter Theatre, and the gargantuan Burton Family Football Complex – but I’m informed by a correspondent that Williams was a long-time nurse at the infirmary. Kudos to UConn for not selling every campus building name to the highest bidder.]
  • “Infirmary” is a rather obsolete term, and perhaps it was gotten rid of purely because it seemed obsolescent. But it strikes me, too, that while “infirmary” means a place where ill people lie about, “student health services” shifts the semantic frame from sickness to healthiness, replaces a negative sign with a positive one, insinuates that rather than repairing harm or disease they’re going to maintain health at good, normal levels.
  • The term “services” suggests that the students at the infirmary are going to be defined as customers seeking service, not as patients getting treatment. “We are committed to providing quality services to students at a reasonable cost,” as they say on their information page.
  • “Health services” may be meant to suggest a broader range of activities than an infirmary would have had, in an earlier era. Can’t imagine that nutrition advice or the morning-after pill were part of the historical program in this building, and it is certainly the general trend to provide more and more campus services for college students.

Can’t see what’s so bad about “infirmary” myself…

2 thoughts on “Semantic inflation in campus building names

  1. That’s really interesting. Has any work been done on the history of naming conventions in universities?

  2. There’s a little bit of research on the language of academic marketing — Bonnie Urciuoli has a great article called “excellence, leadership, skills, diversity: marketing liberal arts education” — but nothing on campus building names that I know of. It would be interesting to know if the trend is towards naming after donors and away from naming after famous faculty, presidents, etc. If I ever have a dull afternoon I may look in the campus archives to see if they have useful records on this…

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