distinguished alum

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Fri May 1 16:07:59 UTC 2009

"alumnus" and related forms have been troublesome for speakers and
writers of english for some time, because they're unassimilated bits
of latin.  "alumni" is very often used as a singular, as a way of
avoiding the choice between the sex-marked "alumnus" and
"alumna" ("alum" is another solution), although many have deprecated
this as a vulgar error.  it is sometimes used with reference to a
woman, as in "Are you an alumni of Green Mt. Camp for Girls?".

so there are plenty of occurrences of "an alumni of".  but there are
also some (though many fewer) occurrences of "an alumnae of".  you can
see how this could come about: the pronunciation of -I and -AE in
latin plurals is vexing, and though many people insist on /ai/ and /
e/, respectively, an /ai/ pronunciation for both is not uncommon, and
then the question is how to spell it.  the association of the -AE
spelling with women remains strong, so almost all the 640 occurrences
(dupes removed) of "an alumnae of" that i googled up refer to women.
but 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.<

  >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 ...<

i got into this topic because 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

(the word is spelled ALUMNI on the Wesleyan (of Conn.) website, by the

this caught my eye because Dickson 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".


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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