The meaning of the word ‘alumni’

Why the word alumni? The word has been in common usage in the education context, since the 17th Century – the first gathering of Harvard alumni was held in 1643, seven years after that university began.

Although the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that “alumnus” is not a synonym for “graduate”, the word and its other forms have become just that: alumna– a female graduate; alumnus– a male graduate; alumni– a group of graduates, male or male/female; alumnae– a group of female graduates.

So what is the etymology of the word alumni?

Alumnus is, of course, a Latin word and derives from the verb alere, which means ‘to bring up,’ or  ‘to nourish’. In Latin literature, the term alumnus was often used to indicate someone nourished by a person who is not a natural parent.

In the Roman era, the word referred to abandoned children, who were often sheltered and raised by foster parents, and the word alumnus appears in Roman law to describe a child placed in fosterage.

According to the late Yale historian, John Boswell, the word “is nowhere defined in relation to status, privilege, or obligation.” He cited the research of Henri Leclercq, who studied the many inscriptions about alumni, and concluded that it referred to exposed children who were taken into a household where they were “regarded as somewhere between an heir and a slave, partaking in different ways of both categories.” Despite the warmth of feelings between the parent and child, “an alumnus might be treated both as a beloved child and as a household servant.”

The meaning of the word was extended to people who received intellectual nourishment, such as that which people receive at school. Therefore, alumni became the students who are intellectually nourished at school, outside of their familial environment.

The word alumni is often misused as in “I am an alumni of Flinders University” when it should be “I am an alumnus/alumna of Flinders University”. It is quite common now, and acceptable too, to shorten the word and say ”I am an alum of Flinders University”. In the abbreviated form, alum can be used by both females and males, and for those uncomfortable with the Latin, the word “graduate” is a perfectly acceptable, gender neutral term for someone who has completed an award at a university.

Finally, at Flinders the word alumni embraces, not just our graduates, but also current and former staff, current students and people who might be described as ‘friends of Flinders”.

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