Mind your language

The elementary misuse of ‘alumni’

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

My husband is forever being sent magazines from his Oxford college inviting him to give it money. I suggest he should ask it to give us money, since it has much more than we do.

But the clever men at Oxford, as Mr Toad called them in his song, seem to have lost the use of their wits. The rot became apparent in 1988, with the publication of the university magazine: ‘This is the first appearance of the university alumni magazine, Oxford Today.’

What did they mean by alumnimagazine? Of course they knew that alumni is the plural of alumnus. But why tack a plural noun on to magazine? If it had been a student or graduate magazine, the noun used attributively (student, graduate) would remain in the singular. That is how English works.

But every college now seems to have an alumnioffice and the university gives information about ‘alumni status’. This focuses on possession of a My Oxford card, as though the university were like Sainsbury’s offering Nectar card benefits. Alumni status really means membership of the university’s convocation; this confers the right to elect the Chancellor and the Professor of Poetry.

In English, alumnus originally meant ‘pupil’ or ‘student’, as it does in Latin, being an extension of the sense ‘foster-child’. It is the correlative of the alma mater, who nourishes the alumnus, both words deriving from alere, ‘to nourish’. Alumnusonly came to mean ‘former student’ thanks to 19th-century Americans.

Even dimmer than using the plural of alumnusto perform an English adjectival function is to turn emeritus into emeritaaccording to the sex of the deserving person. Again it was the Americans, in the late 18th century, who first used emeritus (which in Latin applied to a soldier who had served his time) with professor. But if it is regarded as an adjective, it would in Latin agree with the gender of the noun it qualified. There is a Latin word professor. If Oxford insists on a woman emeritus professor being called emerita, then the feminine form of the Latin professor should be used: profestrix. That would be absurd. But, judging by past form, that need not stop them.

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