Printable Version
Pronunciation: bêr-sêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: The treasurer of a college or university is often called a bursar while the person with the same job on a vessel (air or sea) is known as a purser. Everywhere else the function is simply that of a treasurer.

Notes: Occasionally, we have mentioned speech registers: different ways of speaking depending on your social class or what you do for a living. A notoriously idiosyncratic register is spoken aboard a ship, where left is port, right is starboard, the floor is a deck, and the driver is the captain who can marry people. That the ship's treasurer would have a peculiar name comes as no surprise. (An interesting sidelight pertaining to purse is that the phrase, "to purse one's lips", goes back to the days when purses were bags with drawstrings.)

In Play: Here is another opportunity to compel your children to use the dictionary: "Inasmuch as I am the family bursar, if I say no dial-up pizza, there will be no dial-up pizza." In such a situation, they will be keenly curious as to your term of office. If you own a boat, you can use purser instead, "Since the purser has unfortunately fallen overboard, we will not be able to pay your wages until we return to port."

Word History: Today's Good Word is based on bursa, an obsolete variation of purse. Both come from Greek bursa "goatskin, wineskin", apparently a good place to hide money in times past. Both of today's words are formed by adding the common agent suffix -êr, spelled differently, to these two nouns. In French the Greek borrowing became bourse "stock market", another place associated with the exchange of money. No one knows where the Greek word came from.

Dr. Goodword,

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