What was your old school like? Have you ever gone back there, to your alma mater?
You may be aware of this Latin term, meaning former school or college. I’d never really thought about it, as we use so many Latin terms in the field of education in general. If you have a degree, there’s a good chance you have a parchment with your achievement of this degree announced in Latin.
Alma mater is then just another piece of Latin among many others, but today I started thinking about it, after learning about the oldest university in continuous operation, the University of Bologna, which features on its crest the phrase Alma Mater Studiorum.
Mater stood out immediately. The first possibly-related English word I thought of was mother. Maternal, matriarch, matron… Or perhaps mater was related to subject (matter, material), which would make sense for a university.
Alma I wasn’t too sure about, but I was sure that it was no coincidence that it’s also a name. And then I thought of alms: food or money given to the poor as a charitable act. I was sure I’d got to at least some of the meaning there, but I couldn’t put everything together, so I looked it up.
It turns out that alma mater means nourishing mother. Which makes sense, if you consider that a university nourishes your mind and soul by educating you. The phrase was first used to refer to Cambridge University in 1600 as part of an emblem for Cambridge University Press (see above).
Something to think about, the next time you pass your alma mater!