Posted by: Jack Henry | October 30, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Graveyard

It’s been some time since we’ve had a tidbit from Grammar Girl. I couldn’t resist this topic on the words cemetery vs. graveyard, since we are celebrating Halloween tomorrow.

Cemetery is the much older word, going back to Roman times. Today, a cemetery refers to a large burial ground, typically not associated with a church.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for graveyard comes from 1767, and a graveyard is typically smaller than a cemetery and is often associated with a church. It is part of the churchyard.

Cemetery appears to be the more commonly used word today, perhaps because it’s been around longer, perhaps because people like the sound of it better, or perhaps because there are so many more people buried in cemeteries because they’re so much bigger than graveyards. It was actually the population growth in Europe that led to the creation of large cemeteries because the small churchyards could no longer hold all the dead, so I’m inclined to think their popularity as a resting place is also the reason the word it more popular.

And here’s a bonus—do you know why sailors called the late shift the “graveyard watch”? It’s not because you feel like you’re going to die, although that may be true while you’re adjusting to the odd hours. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, sailors called the shift from midnight to 4:00 a.m. the graveyard watch because of the silence and because of the number of disasters that occurred during these hours.

And from my favorite Online Etymology Dictionary, some additional information on the histories of these two words.


"Place set aside for burial of the dead," late 14c., from Old French cimetiere "graveyard" (12c.), from Medieval Latin cemeterium, Late Latin coemeterium, from Greek koimeterion "sleeping place, dormitory," from koiman "to put to sleep," keimai "I lie down," from PIE root *kei- (1) "to lie," also forming words for "bed, couch."

Early Christian writers were the first to use it for "burial ground," though the Greek word also had been anciently used in reference to the sleep of death. In Middle English simeterie, cymytory, cimitere, etc.; forms with cem- are from late 15c. An Old English word for "cemetery" was licburg (see lich (n.). In 19c. typically a large public burial ground not attached to a church.


1683, from grave (n.) + yard (n.1). Graveyard shift "late-night work" is c. 1907, from earlier nautical term, in reference to the loneliness of after-hours work.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

NOTICE: This electronic mail message and any files transmitted with it are intended
exclusively for the individual or entity to which it is addressed. The message,
together with any attachment, may contain confidential and/or privileged information.
Any unauthorized review, use, printing, saving, copying, disclosure or distribution
is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message in error, please
immediately advise the sender by reply email and delete all copies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: