For all of you out there feeling the need for a Latin lesson, here’s one for you. My wife graduated from Stanford and I got my law degree from Cal Berkeley – arch rivals. Her car has a Stanford license plate holder on it and mine has a University of California Berkeley holder on it. Neither of these say “alumni.” Why not? Because we aren’t alumni of these schools. Actually, as stated in that last sentence, we probably are, but we certainly are not alumni of either school. I am an alumnus of Berkeley and she is an alumna of Stanford. Yet the makers of license plate holders are apparently not Latin scholars. This is a bit surprising to me since I always wondered what else someone with a degree in Latin or Classics could do for a living. So why do all the license plate holders, and for that matter, associations for graduates, use the term “alumni”? Simple: “alumni” is the plural masculine form of the word. It also includes any group (i.e. more than one person) if at least one is male.
So “Alumni Association” is a proper term unless all the alums are women, in which case it should be “Alumnae Association”. By now you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why anyone cares. I’m not suggesting you should, but my wife and I were in the same Latin class in junior high school for two years. We’re both appreciative of the refinements and subtlety of language, so it just grates on us to display publicly something ungrammatical. This blog is called OnWords, after all. Maybe there’s also a touch of school rivalry in there. If either of us had an “alumni” plate, its plural nature would suggest that we were both graduates of the school mentioned. So below is an easy-reference chart. Note that the top labels (Male/Female) refer to the sex of the people being described, not the gender of the words in that column. See my very first post in this blog: People have sex (and words have gender).