The popular term Ivy League is now synonymous with prestigious colleges and universities. However, Ivy League's original meaning did not start out that way. This article looks at the common term Ivy League, what it means now and where it first originated.
The common term of Ivy League is currently mostly used (and is most known for) as a descriptive term for prestigious colleges and universities that are most directly located on the East Coast of the United Sates. These schools are: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale.
One misconception about the origins of the term Ivy League is that is it was a reference to the tall ivy vines that grew on the sides of many of the old college buildings of some of the most prestigious and well-known schools of higher education. However, while that might be a coincidence, Ivy League is actually a term originally used in athletics. The original Ivy League started out as the name of the athletic conference of the aforementioned eight schools. Because these educational institutions have grown over the years to be known as some of the most academically excellent and highly respected schools in the United States, the now-popular term Ivy League has transferred over to be a reference for not just the athletic conference, but is also used to describe the higher education institutions' academic achievements as well. Now each of the schools have more in common than just the name of the athletic conference. Each of the eight schools are well known for holding up its Ivy League status through longevity, private school status, generous financial support from alumni and donations. Each are also highly selective.
As a result of the type of colleges the term is known for, Ivy League is also now sometimes used to describe an elite class. There is some speculation that the word "Ivy" in the original name of the athletic conference came from when it was first started with just four of the schools: Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale. At the time it was called the "IV League" for the roman numeral four. However, over time it began being pronounced as "Ivy League" even though an additional four schools were added to the athletic conference.
Sources: http://www.admissionsconsultants.com/college/ivy_league_table.asp, http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question21056.html, http://www.ivysport.com/about/ivysport