AskDefine | Define mortarboard

Dictionary Definition



1 a square board with a handle underneath; used by masons to hold or carry mortar [syn: hawk]
2 an academic cap with a flat square with a tassel on top

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A square board, with a handle, on which mortar or plaster is carried
  2. An academic cap that has a flat square top with a tassel

Extensive Definition

The square academic cap, sometimes called colloquially a mortarboard (because of its similarity in appearance to the hawk used by bricklayers to hold mortar) or Oxford cap, is an item of academic headdress consisting of a horizontal square board fixed upon a skull-cap, with a tassel, or liripipe, attached to the center. In the UK and the U.S., it is commonly referred to informally in conjunction with an academic gown worn as a cap and gown. It is also often termed a square, trencher, or corner-cap in the UK and Australia. In the U.S., it is usually referred to more generically as a mortarboard, or simply cap.
The cap, together with the gown and (sometimes) a hood, now form the customary uniform of a university graduate, in many parts of the world, following a British model. Other traditions persist as well.


The mortarboard is believed to have evolved from the biretta, a similar-looking hat worn by Roman Catholic clergy. There are suggestions that it might be the other way around. In any case both are derivative of the Roman pileus quadratus, a type of skullcap with superposed square. The mortarboard may also have been influenced by practices in Islamic madrassas. It was originally reserved for holders of master degrees, but was later adopted by bachelors and undergraduates. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries corner-cap (catercap in the Marprelate tracts) was the term used (OED).


Doctorate-holders of some universities wear the mortarboard, although the round Tudor bonnet is more common in Britain. The 4, 6, or 8 cornered "tam" is gaining popularity in the U.S., and in general a soft square tam has some acceptance for women as a substitute for the hard 'square'.
In the U.S., the mortarboard is also worn by high school graduates during the presentation of their diplomas. Traditionally they throw them in the air after the announcement of their confirmation of their graduation.

The tassel

In U.S. graduation ceremonies, the side on which the tassel hangs is important. Sometimes it is consistent among all students throughout the ceremony, in other cases it differs based on level of study with undergraduate students wearing the tassel on the right, and graduate student wearing them on the left. In some ceremonies, the student wears the tassel on one side up until reception of the diploma, at which point it is switched to the other.
At the high school level,the tassel is usually either the school's primary color or a mix of the school's colors, as many as three colors in a tassel.
Universities in the United States might use tassels in black or the school's colors, usually for higher degrees.
For Bachelor degrees the tassel may be colored differently from the traditional black or school colors to represent the field in which the wearer obtained his or her education. In 1896 most colleges and universities in the United States adopted a uniform code governing academic dress. The tassel may be adorned with a charm in the shape of the digits of the year.
For schools at which the graduation regalia is rented or borrowed by the student the tassel might be a part of the rental, though the tassel may be provided separately. Some schools that do not provide a tassel for graduates to keep may offer a souvenir tassel for sale that is not worn with the regalia.
Recent graduates who own an automobile, particularly in the United States, may customarily display their tassel hanging from the rear-view mirror.
In the UK, the tassel is short and is gathered at the button at the center of the board whereas other places have it gathered at a cord that is attached to the button making it longer.

Traditional wear

As with other forms of headdress, academic caps are not generally worn indoors by men (other than by the Chancellor or other high officials), but are usually carried. In some graduation ceremonies caps have been dispensed with for men, being issued only to women, who do wear them indoors, or have been abandoned altogether. This has led to urban legends in a number of universities in the United Kingdom which have as a common theme that idea that the wearing of the cap was abandoned in protest at the admission of women to the university. This story is told at the University of Cambridge, Durham University, the University of Bristol, the University of St Andrews and Trinity College, Dublin among others. In other universities in Ireland, such as the University of Limerick, the rumour was that the mortarboard represented the "capping" of female graduate at bachelors or masters levels.
There are several types of mortarboard that are usually made. The most common in the UK is the 'folding skull' in which the skull part can be folded for ease of storing and carrying. Traditionally, the mortarboard had a 'rigid skull' which is considered more aesthetically pleasing and better fitting than a folding-skull one. Both types require the wearer to wear the appropriate size to fit. In the US, an 'elasticated skull' is mostly used which eliminates the need to make many mortarboards in different hat sizes. Some mortarboards, especially those in east Asia are laced-up at the back of the skull cap.
The correct way to wear a mortarboard is to have the larger part of the skull of the mortarboard at the back of the head with the top board parallel to the ground. A proper fitting mortarboard should not fall off easily.
Until the second half of the 20th century, mortarboards were often worn by schoolteachers, and the hat remains an icon of the teaching profession.
Mortarboards are often seen in party supply shops in the United States in May and June, when they appear in the form of party decorations, on commemorative gifts such as teddy bears, and on congratulatory greeting cards.
It is seen now most often in comic representations of teachers, made popular by the Felix the Cat comic strip's Poindexter.

See also



  • Goff, Philip (1999). University of London Academic Dress. London: University of London Press.
mortarboard in German: Doktorhut
mortarboard in Spanish: Birrete
mortarboard in Norwegian: Studenterlue
mortarboard in Contenese: 四方帽
mortarboard in Chinese: 四方帽
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