Oxford words

27 October 2016


By John Simpson

John Simpson, formerly Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is Emeritus Fellow and Dean of Degrees at Kellogg College. His latest book, The Word Detective, has just been published by Little, Brown in the UK and Basic Books in the US. A flavour of the book can be found through reviews in The Guardian and The Roanoke Times.

As a former Oxford lexicographer, I am often asked, “What is the meaning of matriculate?” Today it’s not a word that everybody knows, but it has had a specific place in university protocol for about a thousand years. The simple answer is that “to matriculate” means to be admitted officially as a member of a university – specifically, to have your name entered on the university’s register. It derives from the Latin word matricula, an index or list. It isn’t a classical Latin word, but a late or post-classical Latin one. In English its first occurrence dates from around 1550, and even then it is used in the context of enrolling students into a university.

Matriculate is related to the Latin word matrix (originally a womb, and hence an environment or framework within which something is encouraged to develop). If you close your eyes and concentrate hard, you can start to see the link between matrices and universities.

I am also often asked, “What is the meaning of subfusc?” Perhaps fewer people today know subfusc than know matriculate. Subfusc is the dark, formal attire required to be worn by undergraduates at examinations and ceremonial occasions at Oxford. It is based on medieval dress, and within the university system the gown in particular has become a symbol of the worldwide community of learning.

Fuscus (the last part of subfusc) is a Latin adjective meaning “dusky” or “dark”, and subfusc has grown in university usage to mean “of a dark or dull colour; sombre”. Both the noun and the adjective date in English from the early eighteenth century and so are comparatively recent innovations. Formerly, Oxford regulations required students to restrict their normal, everyday attire to clothes of this colour, but that requirement was waived some years ago.

Finally, when asked, “Can you point me to the university campus?” I politely point out that that isn’t how Oxford works, but as they are at Kellogg, they should think of Kellogg College as the centre of the university.