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What’s a ‘UPenn’?

UPenn_logo.svgI have a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. My wife worked there for more than 20 years. I have lots of friends and acquaintances who graduated from the institution. Until fairly recently, the only informal name for it I ever encountered was “Penn.”

Then “UPenn” appeared. I believe I first started hearing the term 10 years or so ago, from my daughters and their friends when they were applying to college. Since then it has spread, so much so that I investigated and wrote an article on the topic for the university’s alumni magazine, The Pennsylvania Gazette. What follows is a summary of my findings.

As official and seemingly inevitable as Penn now feels, it originated as a maverick usage, much as UPenn has. From time immemorial, the informal name for the University of Pennsylvania was Pennsylvania. One of the first uses of the new term in The New York Times came in a 1908 football article that observed, “It was brilliant ball that the Penn eleven played.” Penn got a boost not too long afterward from its shout-out in the 1920s song “Fight On, Pennsylvania”: “Then fight, fight, fight, Pennsylvania,/Fight for Penn.” Another song of similar vintage — the Cornell drinking anthem “Hairy-Chested Men” — declares, “Princeton’s for the pretty boys and drunkards go to Penn.”

Penn and Pennsylvania jockeyed for supremacy as the familiar name through the 1960s. By the ’70s, Penn had prevailed: In The Record yearbook editions of that decade, the only place Pennsylvania is found is on the front of sports uniforms.

UPenn arrived on the scene circa 1978. That year an article in the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, referred to a “UPenn Not Penn State” T-shirt, and the Princeton Alumni Weekly reported that an alum was “now associate professor of urology at UPenn Medical School.” Two years later, The New York Times described “awkward UPenn undergraduates hiding behind steel-rimmed glasses.”

The T-shirt mentioned in the Daily Pennsylvanian article is interesting. Penn students have long battled the (annoyingly common) misconception that they go to a public university, as opposed to an Ivy League one. The puzzling part is that UPenn — following as it does the models of UConn (University of Connecticut) and UMass (University of Massachusetts) — actually sounds more like a state school than Penn does. This remains a sensitive topic. The university’s online style guide says that while Penn is the officially approved term, UPenn is “permissible … in situations where it may help to distinguish Penn from other universities within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” (Nudge nudge, wink wink.)

Back to the ’80s, a key development in the story came when Ira Winston, then a systems administrator for the computer and information science department, was working on a project that involved a computer-network collaboration between Penn and the University of Delaware.

“It was determined that we needed a ‘domain name,’” says Jim O’Donnell, who would later become Penn’s chief information officers—or “head computer wienie,” as he puts it—recalling an era when that was an exotic term. “The guy from Delaware said theirs would be ‘UDel.’ So Ira said we would be ‘UPenn.’” From that moment on, the school’s website has been www.upenn.edu , and people’s email addresses, name@upenn.edu.

UPenn had a growth spurt in the late 1990s and early 2000s, presumably influenced by the upenn domain — plus the rhythmic strength of the two-syllable trochee. The 2004 edition of The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges quotes an unnamed Penn senior: “I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I chose to come to UPenn, but I don’t think I would have been happier anywhere else.” And UPenn was regularly used by Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times covering the college-admissions beat in the late 2000s and early 2010s — both reflecting and amplifying the term’s popularity.

What is the current situation? Some data points:

  • Penn-affiliated organizations and Facebook groups include: Learning Alliance at UPenn, UPenn Alerts, The Odyssey at UPenn, Own It UPenn, UPenn Singles Meet, and UPenn Mental Health Helpers.
  • Hoodie Allen (Wharton grad Steven Markowitz) released a recording in 2009 called “UPenn Girls.”
  • From a 2015 novel in the Pretty Little Liars series: “‘She told me he’s studying to be a doctor,’ her mother swooned. ‘At UPenn.’”

The Chronicle is still in the Penn camp, but UPenn occasionally creeps in to its pages, most recently in a 2016 headline: “Students at UPenn Protest Email as Evidence of Rape Culture.”

I also have semi-scientific data on usage at the university. Steve DiNardo, a professor of cell and developmental biology (who says he uses “UPenn” himself), helpfully administered a survey to the 50 graduate students who work in his lab. Thirty responded, and they were roughly equally divided between Penn and UPenn users.

Of course, UPenn is still far from the dominant term. A Google search for the phrase “goes to Penn” yields 67,000 hits (excluding “goes to Penn State”), compared with only 14,300 for “goes to UPenn.” Dan Spinelli, executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, says that both the DP and people in his social circle use Penn. “It would be weird for students to use UPenn among themselves,” he says. “I generally only hear it among international students, or talking to someone outside, like a friend’s parents. I remember when I went to a debate tournament senior year, I told people I was going to ‘UPenn.’”

The current state of play would seem to be the following: Older alumni, humanities professors, staff members, and current undergraduates almost always use Penn. But once one gets away from that bastion — to Wharton, medical, and science faculty; international students (especially on the graduate level); and high-school seniors talking about their college choices and other outsiders — UPenn is ascendant.

The two terms will most likely coexist uneasily for the time being, the newer one bemusing Penn people of a certain vintage. Says Doris Cochrane-Fikes, a 1970s alumna who recently retired as an administrator at the school: “I once saw someone on Locust Walk wearing a UPenn Med shirt, and it just jarred my soul.”

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