Distinguished alum

A few days ago I came across the following on Paul Dickson’s website:

Dickson, born in Yonkers, NY, graduated from Wesleyan University in 1961 and was honored as a Distinguished Alumnae of that institution in 2001. (link)

This caught my eye because Dickson is an author and free-lancer who writes about language, among other things. On his website, he says that he “now concentrates on writing about the American language, baseball, and 20th century history”. But he uses alumnae as a singular referring to a man, namely himself.

(This posting is a revised version of a posting to ADS-L on 1 May.)

Alumnus and related forms have been troublesome for speakers and writers of English for some time, because they’re largely unassimilated bits of Latin. If we follow Latin practices, then the forms and their uses are:

ALUMNUS, used for a man
ALUMNI, used for a group of men, or a group of mixed sex
ALUMNA, used for a woman
ALUMNAE, used for a group of women

But there are many variant usages. Some people level the ALUMNI/ALUMNAE distinction, in favor of ALUMNI.

In fact, ALUMNI is very often used as a singular (great many raw webhits for {“an alumni of”}, and in fact over a hundred for the typo {“an almuni of”}), as a way of avoiding the choice between the sex-marked ALUMNUS and ALUMNA, although some (Copperud, Garner) have deprecated this as a vulgar error (ALUM, sometimes spelled ALUMN, is another solution, though Garner labels this a “slangy casualism”); this is a levelling of singular and plural, in favor of the plural form. It is even sometimes used with reference to a woman, as in:

Are You An Alumni of Green Mt. Camp for Girls? (link)

In addition to the many occurrences of “an alumni of”, there are some (though many fewer) occurrences of “an alumnae of”, similar to the usage in the Dickson quote above. You can see how this could come about, as a consequence of the pronunciations of ALUMNI and ALUMNAE.

The pronunciation of -I and -AE in Latin plurals is vexing. For ALUMNI, AHD4 gives only /ai/ as in hi, and for ALUMNAE, only /i/ as in he (what are sometimes called the “English” pronunciations), but NOAD2 gives second options for both (the second being what are sometimes called the “Latin” pronunciations). (for AE, “ecclesiastical Latin” has still another vowel.) Here’s the layout:

-I: English /ai/, Latin /i/
-AE: English /i/, Latin /ai/ (ecclesiastical /e/ as in hey)

This is about as confusing as could be. Some people apparently just give up and use /ai/ for both variants. Then the question is how to spell them. The spelling with -I is of course much more frequent than the spelling with -AE, so it’s the most common choice (hence the frequent “an alumni of” examples).

But the association of the -AE spelling with women remains strong, so almost all of the 640 occurrences (dupes removed) of “an alumnae of” that I googled up refer to women. However, there are a few referring to men:

I arrived to school late due to an art bid meeting this morning-but they had a celebration for Sue with a “Congratulations Mom” cake and punch. And one of our fabulous kitchen employees made up t-shirts with Harold’s picture on it stating “We’re proud of West Babylon’s Top Chef”, (He’s an alumnae of our school district as well) that many staff members are wearing today. (link)

My friend Andrew Kvammen (Andrew’s Bad Stuff) is an alumnae of the Young Musicians’ Orchestra and he was invited to perform at a show at Walt Disney Concert … (link)

Which brings us back to Paul Dickson’s usage.


2 Responses to “Distinguished alum”

  1. Fernando Colina Says:

    if we are going to look into the Latin roots, it is worth noting that alumnus means student or pupil in that language, not graduate or former student. This was a source of mild confusion for this Spanish speaker, whose mother tongue has kept the original Latin meaning.

  2. Gender troubles 2: emeriti faculty « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] been in this territory before, on the English alumn- words (here), and much of what I said in the earlier posting carries over to the English emerit- […]

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