It’s that time of year when respectable denizens of colleges and universities don caps and gowns and assemble amid the groves of academe, some to confer academic degrees and some to be conferred upon. Their faux medieval vestments are vestiges of that time in western Europe when Latin was the lingua franca for all serious scholarship.
It isn’t anymore. But other vestiges of Latin remain, connecting the English-speaking colleges of today with their ghostly ancestors in the Middle Ages.
Alas, with today’s academicians and their graduates lacking even a nodding acquaintance with the classical language that nearly every educated person studied a century or more ago, Latin takes a beating nowadays in writing and speech.
Take that name for the graduate, the alumn- . . . what?
Let’s see: There are at least four possible ways to end that word: -us, -i, -a, ae. Without any training in Latin, new graduates must find their proper label. If they’d had the good fortune to study a little Latin, they could easily sort it out: alumnus is masculine singular, alumni masculine plural, alumna feminine singular, alumnae feminine plural.
If graduates can master those distinctions, they still have to find the correct label for a collective group of graduates of both genders. Traditionally, that has been alumni, but it’s obviously sexist to assume that men subsume women. Add to that the growing complexity of gender orientation. Now we have to find a heading that encompasses LGBT too.
So some institutions have taken the radical step of refusing to use any third syllable, ending up with an undifferentiated alum (plural alums) to account for all graduates. Even more radically, avoiding both the complication of suffixes and the slanginess of alum, Texas A&M University just calls its graduates (and those who attended but didn’t graduate) former students, gathered into an Association of Former Students.
That’s not the only situation complicated by Latin. What’s the honorable title conferred by a grateful institution on a retiring faculty member? Emeritus.
Or wait — that’s masculine, like alumnus. It works for a man, but a woman who retires after long service must be emerita, right? But wait again — the full title is professor emeritus, and in Latin professor is masculine. So is the meritorious female a professor emeritus or professor emerita? You tell me.
And if you don’t have enough Latin to understand the headline, just google it. O tempora, o mores!