Latin as a school’s ‘lingua franca’
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
felix faustumque sit‘ meaning ‘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.
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)