Guest Feature: British Slang – An American’s Guide to Oxford University Slang and Other Traditions and Oddities

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Editor’s Note: The following is an interesting guest article by author Christopher Yates who recently published a book about Oxford University. Thanks Christopher!

My debut novel, Black Chalk, is set half in Oxford University and half in New York — and in fact I was an undergraduate at Oxford. So I present you here with my guide to the words and oddities of an ancient and venerable (and sometimes ridiculous) institution, an A-Z of some of the strange terms and traditions of Oxford University.

Battels – (see Pronunciation) these are the bills you receive for food and lodging from you college. And you cannot battle your battel, or else they’ll rusticate you (see below)

Bop – a bop is basically a disco. (Which word is more lame: bop or disco?) My college, Wadham (see Pronunciation), had one of the more popular bops at Oxford, a sort of heavy-drinking/moshing affair—and let me tell you, you haven’t seen real moshing until you’ve seen a bunch of overprivileged Oxford students moshing. Ever since 1984, every single Wadham bop has ended with the track ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Special A.K.A. (I’m actually quite proud of this.)

Bulldogs – these were the university’s police force, abolished in 2003, but still very much on the scene when I was around (1990-93). They wore black suits and black bowler hats (which screams ‘policeman’ in anybody’s language, right?) and were most noticeably on patrol after finals (see below). There is a tradition of pelting your fellow students with flour and eggs once they complete finals. The bulldogs were there partly to prevent this happening. Perhaps they were abolished in 2003 because I never witnessed a bulldog managing to prevent any pelting. Splendid bowlers, however.

Cherwell – one of the two rivers in Oxford, a tributary of the Thames. The other river is The Isis, which ACTUALLY IS the Thames but has this rather pretentious local name. (Confused? That’s the idea.) See Pronunciations in order to avoid being laughed at when asking directions to the Cherwell

Colleges – Oxford University has no campus as such and is not even one institution exactly. Instead it is a collection of 38 colleges and 6 private halls, spread all across the city. All operate under the auspices of the University, but each place has its own set-up, rules and character. So the college at which I studied is called Wadham and at any time it has about 450 undergraduates and 150 graduate students. Most of your tutorials (see below) take place within college, each college appointing its own dons (see below also)

Dining – each college has its own dining traditions, but on the whole, students dine in the Hall, generally a churchlike space, many centuries old, lined with ancient tables and the walls hung with oil paintings of famous college old boys or dons. The dons, who often have a very different meal to the students, eat at high table, which is perpendicular to the students’ tables (that run lengthwise). The food at my college was unutterably poor, although one time I got to eat in exalted company at high table and was served a delicious plate of oxtail.

Dons – an Oxford don is a fellow/tutor at a college who teaches students under the tutorial system when he isn’t involved in something far more important, such as his own research/writing, dining or sunbathing at Parson’s Pleasure (see below)

Entz – a shortening of the word events (a bop, for example), which can take the form of various entertainments

Finals – a weeklong ordeal of lengthy written tests, taken at the end of your third year (for most subjects) which solely and entirely determines your final degree (whether you pass or fail and what grade you achieve). Over twenty years later, I still experience stress dreams that center themselves around finals

Gaudy – an alumni reunion, surprisingly not named after displays of how rich everyone has become since graduation

Hilary – Oxfordese for the second (spring) term. First term is Michaelmas (see Pronunciation) and third term is Trinity

Parson’s Pleasure – a nude sun-bathing area popular with Oxford dons, which closed in 1991. However, I started at Oxford in 1990 and was able to witness it first-hand in all its gory splendor — hordes of old gray academics buck-naked in deckchairs. And I can assure you that these were no long-dons

Porter – a college employee, a sort of cross between a security guard, a mailman and a receptionist. Don’t be fooled by the name. A porter will never ever ever carry anything for you. NEVER!

Pronunciationsbattels are pronounced like wars: battles; Cherwell is char-well; Magdalen (a college) is mawd-lin; Michaelmas (first term) begins with mickle, not Michael; my college, Wadham, is pronounce to rhyme with Sodom (which then became its nickname for those who considered it an ultra-liberal hell)

Rustication – this is temporary expulsion from college. The word comes from the idea that Oxford is a very large and grand city and if you were rusticated, you were being sent back to terrible, rustic pastures. Oxford is now NOT a very big city

Scouts – these are a college’s room cleaners. I remember that my first scout was fairly cold toward me. This was probably fair, I had a room-mate who was not the tidiest being on the planet (ordered to clean up, he once hid all his ashtrays in the fridge). Things came to a head when something moldy leaked from a bin, the mold began to spread and men in hazmat suits were sent in. (I swear this actually happened.) There was a hefty penalty to pay for this that appeared on our next battels (above)

Sending down – this is the next stage after rustication, complete expulsion from the university; unfortunately my very best friend at Oxford was both rusticated and sent down; he has recovered quite nicely from this trauma

Sub fusc – this is the uniform students are required to wear on certain occasions. Dark suit (men), dark skirt (women), white shirt, white bowtie (men) or black ribbon (women)* And your sub fusc will then be topped off with a mortar board and a black thigh-length academic gown. You have to wear this entire ensemble in a ritual when you start at Oxford and then for first-year exams and finals. And at some colleges this outfit is required for dining in hall

* In 2012, references to gender were removed, so either sex can wear either uniform

Tutorials – the Oxford system includes education through lectures for large groups, but the real nitty-gritty of its teaching system is tutorials. Tutorials are utterly terrifying, a one-hour lesson held in a don’s private room attended, generally, by just two students and one don. On the whole, one of the students reads out an essay and then very clever things are discussed in excruciating detail. Unfortunately, the don is usually something of a world-class expert in the subject and you are a frightened 18 year-old boy who has somehow tricked his way into this place. Sometimes your tutorial partner falls ill and you have to do this ALL ON YOUR OWN. Imagine Neil deGrasse Tyson saying to you,  ‘Next week’s topic is quasars, I expect you to produce 2,000 insightful words on the topic by then. Bring it to my academic den and I will proceed to ruthlessly expose your lack of knowledge through a series of near-impossible questions’. Yes, terrifying. But actually a frighteningly good way to learn, fear-of-God-style

To read a sample of Black Chalk, visit christopherjyates.com/book

About the Book:

image003Black Chalk by Christopher J Yates

It was only ever meant to be a game. A game of consequences, of silly forfeits, childish dares. A game to be played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal, more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results. Now, fourteen years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round.


Comments

  1. avatarken says

    They STILL play ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ at the end of the bops? I read “Oriental studies” at Wadham in 87-90 (and my partner read Maths there in 87-91), and I still have the urge to turn up the lights and start collecting the glassware whenever I hear that song end.

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