Would you set up camp in a field or a forest? Perhaps you've found yourself wavering between opposing political camps whilst strolling through your University campus? Tim Bowen explains why there's more to this word than simply choosing where to pitch your tent.

A camp was originally simply a field or a large, level open space and derived from the Latin word campus. Such places were often the scenes of battles and camp became associated with the idea of battlefield. Armies would also pitch their tents in such places and obviously not on hillsides or in dense forests, so the word was also applied to ground held or occupied by an army, and thence to a place where soldiers lived.

The idea of a camp as a place to go for recreational activity (camping at a camp-site) originated in the early years of the 20th century. Camp also has a the figurative meaning of ‘a faction’ or ‘a group of people who have the same ideas or support the same person’ as in ‘People in the Brown camp have strongly defended the minister’s speech’.

The word campus, used to describe the grounds occupied by a university or college, has the same origin as camp and was first used to describe a small part of Princeton University in New Jersey in the early decades of the 18th century but it was not until the 20th century that the word was applied to the whole area of a university. The apparently unrelated adjective camp, meaning ‘exaggeratedly theatrical’, as in ‘What a camp performance!’, is of unknown origin but may come from the French verb camper, meaning ‘to portray’.