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Talk the Talk: Harvard Lingo

I took two years of Spanish before coming to college, and then three semesters of French after coming here, but what I didn’t realize was that there was a third language I would have to learn outside of the classroom: the language of Harvard. One of the many features that sets Harvard apart is that we have many alternative phrases and words for things, sometimes to the point of confusion for freshmen and their families. Luckily, though, I’ve put together a quick guide of some of our most common phrases so that you, too, can make your friends and family wonder what the heck you’re talking about.

Concentration – this is our word for major. Despite the names being different, concentrations are essentially exactly the same thing. Harvard has 50 different concentrations that students can study.

Secondary – our word for minor. I am studying English with a secondary, or minor, in film.

Teaching fellow, or “TF” – this is what we call our teaching assistants. They work really hard to help out students in classes!

Harvard Time – for a long time our classes started seven minutes after the hour so that students would have time to get to and from their courses. Classes have been restructured so that they now take place in longer blocks, but “Harvard time” has still become synonymous with arriving seven minutes after a chosen time.

The Berg – our nickname for Annenberg, the freshman-only dining hall that all first-year students eat in.

The interior of Annenberg Hall. Many rows of long tables sit within a long hall decorated with chandeliers and stained-glass windows.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenthal via Office of the Arts at Harvard

Above: The interior of the Berg!

Pset – short for “problem set,” which is a type of assignment involving sets of problems or equations to solve, usually in STEM classes.

Brain Break – a couple of hours after dinner, Brain Break is the time when the dining halls will have snacks for students to munch on for those late-night study sessions.

Proctor – a residential advisor for freshmen. Proctors help answer questions, are there in emergencies and hold weekly study breaks where the freshmen can get to know one another and check in.

Section – when a class has more than 30 students in it, they will be broken up into discussion sections, or just “sections” for short, where in addition to the professor’s lectures students will meet up with teaching fellows to further discuss material. They’re really important for getting

The Game – every year Harvard faces off against our rival Yale in our annual Harvard-Yale football game, often shortened to “The Game.” The Game has been played since 1875 and is the biggest sport event of the year.

Comping – some of the clubs on campus require you to audition, or compete (from which “comping” is derived), in order to get in. For example, acapella groups, competitive debate clubs, etc.

And finally, my personal favorite: veritaffle. “Veritaffles” are the name for waffles that are served in our dining halls – we have special waffle irons emblazoned with the Harvard “veritas” crest, imprinting the image on every waffle that’s made. A bit silly to be honest, but I love them all the same.


A waffle sits on a plate with the Harvard "veritas" crest imprinted in the center.
Above: One of the first veritaffles I ever made! It’s a little sloppy around the edges; my technique has since improved.

There you have it! Though not an exhaustive list, these are just some of the commonly-used phrases you can find around campus. It can be a bit confusing at first, but these phrases have definitely become a staple of my Harvard experience!

About the author

Hello! My name is Madeline, and I’m a rising senior living in Leverett House. I’m studying English with a secondary in Visual and Environmental Studies (specifically film production), and I’m... View full profile

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