What’s a ‘festschrift’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: festschrift…

I have mostly neutral feelings towards the work of American novelist Philip Roth. I’m not a huge fan, nor am I a detractor. Still, I chafe at the description of his novel The Human Stain as a “masterpiece.” Set in rural New England. in the late 1990s, the book tells the story of Coleman Silk, a retired professor of classics, who is accused of being racist.

It is interesting and a little bit provocative and explores broad American themes, but it didn’t quite grab my interest in the way that I’d hoped. It did, however, give me my word of the week, festschrift. Here’s how Roth used it:

It’s almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would have been a classical studies chair established in his name…

In academia, a Festschrift (usually capitalized)is a book honouring a respected person, especially an academic, and presented during their lifetime. It generally takes the form of an edited volume, containing contributions from the honoree’s colleagues, former pupils, and friends.

As you may have guessed, the word is German, meaning “festival of writing” or “party writing” and came to North America from Germany, originating with scientists who had escaped the Nazis.  In the second half of the 20th century, the practice has become used internationally. Since no English term for such a book to mark a special occasion had been in use, the German word Festschrift has been incorporated into the English language and is frequently used without the italics that designate a foreign term.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on March 7/18.

Scroll to Top


"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.