The Grammarphobia Blog

Is that an “alum” on your bib?

Q: I am making some surprise bibs for a friend who is not sure of the baby’s sex. I want to put my friend’s college logo on the bib and write something along the lines of “Future (insert Logo here) Alumni.” I know “alumni” is plural and “alum” is slang, but I am not sure which word to use for a single person of unknown gender. My friend is a grammar geek and will not put her child in something with improper English.

A: If you don’t know whether the bib is for a future “alumnus” (boy) or “alumna” (girl), we’d recommend using “alum.”

Most standard dictionaries describe “alum” as “informal”—that is, suitable for relaxed or conversational usage. The term is increasingly being used, especially in American English, to describe a graduate of either sex.

It strikes us as just the right word for a baby’s bib, though we wouldn’t recommend it for a scholarly paper. If you think of “alum” as slangy, however, why not use “graduate” or the informal “grad”?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has a usage note entitled “Is it acceptable to use alum for alumnus or alumna?”

“Traditionally,” the dictionary says, “the word alumnus has been used to refer to a single male, whereas alumna has been used for a single woman. Initially the plural forms were alumni to refer to multiple men (or multiple men and women) and alumnae for multiple women.”

A little over a hundred years ago, according to M-W, “the shortened form of alum began to be used to describe a graduate or past attendee of either gender. Although many people feel that alum is informal, it is in increasing use, and we appear to be moving toward a greater acceptance of the word. The plural of alum is alums.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “alumnus” and “alumna” from classical Latin, where an alumnus was a foster son, male child, protégé, ward, or pupil, and an alumna was its feminine counterpart.

When the two terms first appeared in English in the early 1600s, they referred to male and female students, not to graduates.

The earliest example for “alumnus” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1602 religious tract by the English writer Anthony Copley: “Neither was I an Alumnus of the Colledge, being the Popes pensioner.”

The dictionary’s first example for “alumna” is from The Treasure of Vowed Chastity in Secular Persons, John Wilson’s 1621 translation from the Italian of a work by two Jesuit theologians, Leonardus Lessius and Fulvius Androtius:

“Take none of the younger sort of widowes, &c. which is meant that they should not be admitted into the function or ministery of diaconisses, or into the number of the Alumnae or Pupills of the Church.” (The plural is used here and in several other Oxford citations).

The first OED example for “alumnus” as a graduate or former student is from the Nov. 20, 1800, issue of the Maryland Gazette: “At the same time Messrs. Charles Alexander, … John Shaw and Carlisle F. Whiling, alumni of St. John’s college, were admitted to the degree of master of arts.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “alumna” as a graduate or ex-student is from the October 1843 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York monthly magazine: “So favorably are we impressed with these ‘exercises’ of the alumnæ of the Albany Female Academy.”

Interestingly, a short form of “alumnus” and “alumna” showed up in the late 1600s, meaning a foster child, ward, protégé, or charge, but that sense is now considered obsolete or rare.

The only OED example is from a June 21, 1683, letter by John Eliot, a Puritan missionary: “Your hungry alumns do still cry unto your honour for the milk of the word.”

The first OED citation for a short form used to mean a graduate is from an 1877 speech by the Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour.

At a Swedish ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the University of Uppsala, he expressed hope that “Sweden may continue to send forth many alumns who shall do credit to her great Educational Institutions.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford citation for “alum” with the usual contemporary spelling is from the Dec. 13, 1928, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune: “The local Harvard ‘alums’ have a number of parties in the incipient stage of planning.”

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