Latin as a school’s ‘lingua franca’

Ushaw College (photo courtesy of Tony Gardner, taken from a hot-air balloon)

On a recent return visit to my ‘Alma Mater’ (Ushaw College, Durham) where I spent my formative teenage years living a quasi-monastic existence, I found myself plunged linguistically into the faintly forgotten past of  a truly classical education. If I were to preface this by saying that four of my the eight O Level subjects (GCSEs) at Ushaw were classical, namely Latin, Ancient Greek, Roman History and Greek History, you would not be surprised to discover that the language of everyday College-life was riddled with, and indeed coloured by, classical vocabulary.

Furthermore, the dreaded annual ‘Reading-up’ ceremony was a clear demonstration of the importance of the Classics. The ceremony might be kindly described as the public acknowledgement of academic success, but the reality was somewhat different for the majority of students. Academic success was defined solely by your ‘success in Latin’, which for some was an annual ceremony of humiliation, because “many were called, but few were chosen”! Reading-up was an idiosyncratic ceremony (introduced with the words ‘Quod

Reading-up (Year 7)

felix faustumque sitmeaning ‘May it bring happiness and luck’!) where each year-group lined up in front of the whole College, and the results of the end-of-year examination in Latin were read out (in Latin, of course!). As your name was read out, you climbed back up to your seat in the Theatre. If you were in the top band, you hastened back to your seat soonest,  holding your head up high. If you were an ‘also-ran’, you suffered the utter humiliation of waiting for the previous 49 names to be called out, to be left there standing alone, before you could crawl back whimpering to your seat, which was inevitably at the top of the Theatre, making your retreat into oblivion long and painful. So unjust was this evaluation of  academic worth that students who were brilliant mathematicians and scientists were left stigmatised by their lack of success in Latin.

Aerial shot (courtesy of Tony Gardner)

But how did all this emphasis on the classics (especially Latin) impact on our everyday language? Well, ground-floor rooms were linked by an ambulacrum (corridor), homework was written up in a manuscript (exercise book), a period of evening silence was a magnum silentium,  an oral examination was known as a viva voce, and anyone who left the College before completing his studies, was referred to as Abiit re infecta (‘he left without the matter being completed’). Year groups were given singular names like Underlow (year 7), Low Figures (year 8), High Figures (year 9), Grammar (year 10), Syntax (year 11), Poetry (year 12) and Rhetoric (year 13). A permitted lie-in in the morning was called Aristote, the peculiar hat worn by clergy was known as a biretta, and a day free from classes was christened a Greek Playday!

At a much more prosaic (anglo-saxon) level, the terms we used to name some of the indescribable dishes served in the refectory were even more memorable. Pod (steamed pudding whose weight bore no relationship to its size!), Dead baby pudding (a forbidding swiss roll filled with red jam), Fly pie (pudding made of pastry and raisins), Squirt (jam spread on pastry, served with custard), Slops (any dessert like rice pudding, semolina, tapioca, sago etc…), and our bowels were kept in constant motion with regular servings of prunes and figs!

But frequently it’s the comic pidgin Latin that sticks in your memory: “Caesar ad sum iam forte, Pompey ad erat, Caesar sic in omnibus, Pompey init sat”!

Vento semper ut tuum in dorso. (May the wind be ever at your back!)

(Acknowledgement: grateful thanks to Pat Hurley who compiled a short dictionary of Ushaw vocabulary)

About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on November 15, 2011, in Personal history and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Frank I had no idea that you had such an incredible experience in your youth. Was this a very exclusive private school education in England? What made your parents choose this for you?

    • Olivia, this was a Catholic Seminary for the training of future priests. Many (like me) were accepted at the age of 11, spending the 7 years of secondary education pursuing a programme of study that was heavily biased towards the Classics. After A levels, those who wanted to continue, still had another 6 years of higher studies in Philosophy and Theology before reaching ordination. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that many decided not to complete the full 13 years of preparation, and left the College to pursue other things. At the age of 18, I was offered a transfer to the Colegio Inglés, Valladolid, Spain, where I stayed another 18 months (learning Spanish in the process) before seeking my ‘release’ into the real world.
      It was said in the past that ‘if you could remember the 1960s, then you weren’t really a part of it’. For most of us at Ushaw, we watched the 1960s go by from the touchline. It now seems unbelievable that while this immense social revolution was going on outside the College walls, we were enshrouded in a cocoon of quasi-monasticism, studying Latin and Ancient Greek!

  2. Fascinating.
    It made me think of Porterhouse Blue, with Skullion and Sir Godber.
    Remember that ?

  3. Frank

    I was in the year above you, 1960-1973, and have to congratulate your school (nb not “year”) for organizing what must have been a splendid reunion;- wish I could do the same for my lot, but sadly without an Ushaw to return to it now seems a bit academic.

    My memories of “reading up” were that it wasn’t so bad if you were a permanent fixture at the bottom end as you were left standing there with your mates who were in the same boat. However if you experienced a sudden fall from grace you were left standing there like an idiot as your colleagues peeled off to their seats.

    As for the cuisine, you omitted that famed Ushaw staple, – cow pie! Our trencher once found a rat in one. Our waiter took it up to Leo Pyle, seated by the fireplace in the Ref as usual, who fished it out, threw it in the fire, and sent it back to us!

    Anthony (Fred) Flynn

    (The Fred nickname stuck for years – I played Frederick in Pirates of Penzance
    when I was in Low Figs or High Figs)

    • Anthony,
      I was confused at first…….We had an Anthony (Tony) Flynn in our School year, and he was at the reunion in Durham! I remember the ‘cow-pie’ well, but we never knowingly ate a rat! If it’s of any interest, we didn’t use Ushaw as our theoretical base for our reunion (which took place in a hotel in Durham city). It could have been in a hotel anywhere……it just so happened that more of the year group still lived in the NE, not far from Durham, to make Durham the logical choice.If we have future reunions, it is likely to to be elsewhere in the country.

  4. Frank

    I remember Tony well, He was the sporty Flynn, I was the musical one . We also had a Gerard Flynn in our year. To make matters worse I think Tony’s initials were A G!

    One of your school year might be able to recollect who sang the “Adeste” solo on the televised Midnight Mass in 1962. Brendan Hodgson gave me a copy of a CD that was cut from the recording under the misapprehension that it was me, but I did it in 1961. It would have been someone from your year,

    I seem to remember someone in your year (Michael Minchella?) had a dad in the ice cream business, who would bring an ice cream van up to the Junior House in the summer and give us all free ice cream, It didn’t take much in those days to make us ecstatically happy!

    • … I couldn’t tell you who sang the Adeste in our year, but I bet Pat Hurley could. I do remember Brendan Hodgson was diplomatically given other duties during that service, so his tone-deaf singing would be kept at bay! Today, that would be seen as discrimination……
      And yes, you are right about Michael Minchella………….

  5. ……50 years later I can still hear Brendan’s mellifluous tones ringing in my ears. A true legend in his own lifetime. He gave a new meaning to the phrase tone deaf. However he did get me through my Maths O level.

  6. Frank,
    Your regurgitated Dictionary brought back memories but , of course, no mention of a Bell Rush. I cant remember when it was abolished but for the benefiit of those whse missed them it was a Ceremony???? on the morning of a unscheduled Play Day. When the Censor announced it High and Low Phils formed a barrier at the East end of the Front Ambulac while the Bell was rungby the Censor to announce the Playday. Meanwhile Grammar and Syntax [“Little lads” as opposed to “Big Lads” Poets and Rhets] rushed and attacked the barrier and tried to get to the Bell. Why? Surely not to stop the Play day? An old Douai custom? I dont think anyone knew why.
    As for Readings up…. I hated them . My usual place was about 3 or 4 from the bottom. Then one embarrassing day I was called out at number 3!!!! Dan Shanahan who was doing the Reading [later Monsignor… now RIP] had to stage whisper”Yes its you , Len” I never found out what had gone wrong! BUT then came pay back….I reverted to my usual place and there was I getting lonlier and lonlier as I waited for 28, 29,30 to be called. Then came our final Reading at the end ofRhets and I was rock bottom which remained into Phils…. last choice for rooms , last for everything

  7. I’ve a feeling that Mick Sands sang the Adeste one year. He hasn’t stopped singing since! Check the website link below.

  8. Actually – click on my name to see his site.

    • Liam,
      great to hear from you, and thanks for that link. Because I was a member of the little known folk club (run by Seth), I was keenly interested in all things folksy, and the Sands family sang unaccompanied folk at the time (two brothers and a sister, I think). They were in a league of their own.

  9. Liam,

    Glad to see you’re still extant. If you ever read this:- the Adeste was a toss up between Frank Scollen. Mick Sands and me. I was surprised to find the music stationed at my choir spot that Christmas as I thought Mick would be the chosen one. He did however have the far greater honour of playing playing Mabel to my Frederick in Pirates of Penzance.. “Tommy” Thompson re-scripted the part and Mabel had a sex change to Edward.

    I see Tommy Peacock was up at Ushaw in 2012 for Grand Day. I’m hoping to get up myself this year for the first time since I left 49 years ago!

    Anthony (Fred) Flynn

  10. Fred!

    I can’t believe it’s almost 50 years ago since we were chanting together. Other than my cousin John (Peacock), I don’t hear or see much of anyone else. I do play Scrabble online with Sid Cumberland and was a pal of Pierce Roche until his recent death. I left the UK in 1973 but return frequently. In fact, I’ll be spending all of August there this year – escaping the Las Vegas heat. When is Grand Day?


    • Liam, I’m cycling in Florida at the moment. I think Grand Day I’d some time in March……if you google St Cuthbert’s Society, or Ushaw College, you should find out the date. Where are living now?

  11. Hello Frank,
    Cycling anywhere in Florida is quite easy. It is one of 3 US States whose highest elevation is a building!
    I relocated December 2013 to spend my golden years in Sin City – Las Vegas, Nevada. If you ever get out this way, look me up.

    • Liam, ad a cyclist who loves to riding over mountain passes, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park. But then you have factor in wind (very strong in theses parts and no hedgerow protection) and the climate (hot and humid on the Keys)….so that walk in the park becomes a forced hike at times.
      But, still prefer the Alps or Pyrenees….

  12. I understand! I have a second home in Palm City, FL but use it rarely because of the humidity. It proves, however, to be a great overnight stop-off point when we are headed to the Bahamas out islands …..

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