It’s Always Been that Way

The University of Denver was founded in 1864 and started out as Colorado Seminary. In 1880, the school was renamed to the University of Denver but is still legally operating as Colorado Seminary. But the name that causes the most confusion is the school’s iconic abbreviation, ‘DU’.

But why do we say DU and not UD?

It all goes back to what appears to be an unusual midwest practice. The University of Colorado, the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Nebraska, Oklahoma State University,  Iowa State University, and Kansas State University were founding members of the Big Eight Conference. Each of the member schools inverts their abbreviation to CU, KU, MU, OU, and NU while the state-designated universities remain in order such as OSU, ISU, and KSU. The University of Iowa was an early member of the Big Eight Conference and held a joint affiliation with the Big 10 while consistently maintaining the more accepted UI abbreviation.

Map: Big Eight Geography

Standard practice for US universities to the north, south, east, and west was to abbreviate their schools in order. For example, the University of North Dakota in UND. The University of Michigan is U of M. The University of Arkansas is UA. The University of Texas is UT and the University of Washington is UW. The list goes on and on.

Why did the University of Denver adopt ‘DU’, a custom more ordinarily used by larger Big Eight state universities in the midwest? Well, no one knows for sure. DU’s sister school, Northwestern University, kept it simple by putting ‘University’ at the end and goes by NU. However, when a former Big Eight member institution, the University of Nebraska, joined the BIG 10 conference with an out-of-order NU, some Northwestern University faithful were perturbed with the addition of a reverse NU to the conference.

There are few other midwest private universities that begin with ‘University of’ and all are abbreviated in order. The University of Chicago is U of C., the University of Notre Dame is UND or ND and the University of Dayton is UD. But, DU it seems is the rare exception to the rule as a non-Big Eight member and appears to be the only private university in the land to follow this unusual convention.

Colorado College made it simple for their academically challenged students who were assured of identifying ‘CC’ correctly with an easily repeated palindrome.

blog by John Gasaway, a Columbia University lecturer, suggests the following:  One explanation that has perhaps been given a little too much credence is that this was somehow a “Big Eight thing,” and that in the 1960s the late lamented conference may have even required their “University of (State Name)” members to go with the “U” at the end. The first problem with this telling of the story is the presence of the University of Denver, known colloquially as “DU.” Denver was never a member of the Big Eight and thus was not subject to its decrees. The Pioneers just came up with the nutty abbreviation on their own. To add to the confusion, many of these same institutions were reversing their initials before the very formation of the Big Eight Conference.

There could be other reasons like how the abbreviation flows off the tongue or because older, more established schools already had taken their initials. The debate rages on Quora and Reddit but most of the discussion is based on uninformed opinions or humor.

So the pat answer to the question about DU’s origins? “It’s always been that way.” Or better yet, ask fabled DU historian Steve Fisher about the origins of the ‘DU’ abbreviation. You can find him at nearly every home Denver sporting event.

8 thoughts on “It’s Always Been that Way”

  1. The University of Tulsa, another private, also reverses its initials and is known as “TU”.

    My theory is that since the eastern schools are typically older than the midwestern ones, sports writers in the early years of the 1900s through the 1920s encouraged the abbreviation flip flop to avoid confusion. For example, the University of Delaware (founded in the 1700s) was already known as “U of D.” as was the University of Dayton (1850), both older than DU.

    Interestingly, the University of Detroit started using “U of D” in 1911, long after the DU name came into use in the 1880s.

  2. Makes sense Swami.

    Great Tulsa add. Another private university in Big Eight territory. We’re not alone.

    1. So Steve, the Big Eight was formed in 1907 and Colorado Seminary became the University of Denver in 1880. Was ‘DU’ used before 1907?

      1. Yes, it was. There is an 1898 photo of the DU football team where those DU initials are on the uniform in that order, which is the oldest photo proof of initial reversal that I have seen.

        Link:
        https://specialcollections.du.edu/object/ff5fa186-c022-4886-a340-0da92ca776fe#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-650%2C-1%2C7885%2C5330

        There is also an earlier verbal reference to the ‘DU’ Baseball Club on page 16 of this 1886 edition of the Hespurus, a DU student publication that predates the Clarion, which debuted in 1899. So that means the inverted initializing practice dates back at least 135 years to 1886, to within 6 years of the ‘re-founding’ of the University as the University of Denver in 1880. DU was orginally founded in 1864 as Colorado Seminary, but that school closed in 1867.

        Link: (page 10 of the PDF, page 16 of the original 1886 document)
        https://specialcollections.du.edu/object/e94bdf56-ec6d-4a40-b247-ed7ba34f7e41#?c=&m=&s=&cv=9&xywh=-215%2C-1%2C1428%2C1293

  3. Naturally the flagship university of NEW Jersey is the outlier. No mention of the state in its initials or abbreviation. GO RU

  4. Dunker also finds SC interesting, especially lately. South Carolina uses SC almost exclusively while USC bounces back with USC and SC. Is it just by coincidence that one is nicknamed Cocks and the other Trojans?.
    I hate when I wear DU swag in NJ and people think Delaware.

  5. It’s because it was a natural extension from Northwestern University . Denver university was founded by John Evens from the Northwestern clan

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