Posted in Did You Know ?, From The Editor's Desk, Language, Words

Language: Alumnus, Alumni, Alumna, and Alumnae

Today’s Lunchbox Lesson: ALUMNUS, ALUMNI, ALUMNA, and ALUMNAE

These words all describe attending or graduating from a particular school, but they differ in number and gender. Here’s how it works:

ALUMNUS: a singular noun referring to one male attendee
ALUMNI: a plural noun referring either to a group male attendees or to a mixed group of both male and female attendees (but not *only* female attendees)
ALUMNA: a singular noun referring to one female attendees
ALUMNAE: a plural noun referring to a group of only female attendees

Alumnus means “pupil,” or “nursling” in Latin. This is where it gets interesting! The Latin term for a former school is “alma mater,” meaning “nourishing mother.” Thus, an alumnus can be seen as the “nourished one/pupil” of the “nourishing mother,” the school.

These words are Latin “loanwords,” meaning they preserve their original forms when we use them. The difficulty arises because many Americans have not taken Latin, so they are unfamiliar with Latin forms (i.e. genders and plurals). As a result, the words are often used incorrectly.

One fairly popular trend is to avoid using these specific words altogether. Instead, the word ALUM is used for the singular and ALUMS is used for a group. These constructions avoid the possibility of using the Latin words incorrectly. It is considered acceptable for casual writing and conversation, but it is not acceptable (yet) for formal writing. It’s best if you can try to remember the Latin words — and you’ll look smarter too!

Posted in Word Wednesday

Word Wednesday: Sesquipedalian



adjective | ses·qui·pe·da·lian \ˌses-kwə-pə-ˈdāl-yən\


  1. Having many syllables
  2. given to, or characterized by the use of long words


mid 17th century: from Latin.

Horace, the Roman poet known for his satire, was merely being gently ironic when he cautioned young poets against using “sesquipedalia verba”-“words a foot and a half long”-in his book Ars poetica, a collection of maxims about writing. But in the 17th century, English literary critics decided the word sesquipedalian could be very useful for lambasting writers using unnecessarily long words.

Your Latin Lesson:

Latin sesquipedalis, literally, a foot and a half long

from sesqui- “half as much again”
+ ped-, pes “foot”

Did You Know?

Words that Rhyme with Sesquipedalian: Episcopalian, tatterdemalion, Australian, bacchanalian.

A sesquiquadrate is an 135-degree angle.

A sesquicentennial is a period of 150 years.

A sesquinona in music, is an interval having the ratio or 9:10—that is, a lesser major second.


Sesquipedalian cartoons © Mickey Bach Word-A-Day


Posted in Word Wednesday

Word Wednesday: Floccinaucinihilipilification



noun |FLOK-si-NO-si-NY-HIL-i-PIL-i-fi-KAY-shuhn /ˌfläksəˌnôsəˌnīˌhiləˌpiləfiˈkāSHən/


Estimating something as worthless.


Mid 18th century: from Latin flocci, nauci, nihili, pili (words meaning ‘at little value’) + -fication. The Latin elements were listed in a well-known rule of the Latin Grammar used at Eton College, an English public school.

Your Latin Lesson: 
flocci, from floccus (tuft of wool) +
nauci, from naucum (a trifling thing) +
nihili, from Latin nihil (nothing) +
pili, from pilus (a hair, trifle) +
fication (making).

Did You Know?

It was the longest word in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis beat it out in the second edition.