alma mater

Origin & History of “alma mater”

Alma mater literally means ‘mother who fosters or nourishes’. The Latin adjective almus ‘giving nourishment’, derives from the verb alere ‘nourish’ (source of English alimony and alimentary). The epithet alma mater was originally applied by the Romans to a number of goddesses whose particular province was abundance, notably Ceres and Cybele. In the 17th century it began to be used in English with reference to a person’s former school or college, thought of as a place of intellectual and spiritual nourishment (Alexander pope was amongst its earliest users, although the reference is far from kind: ‘Proceed, great days! ’till Learning fly the shore … ’Till Isis’ Elders reel, their pupils’ sport, And Alma mater lie dissolv’d in port!’ Dunciad 1718).

If that which nourishes is almus, those who are nourished are alumni (similarly derived from the verb alere). Alumnus was first applied in English to a pupil – and more specifically a former pupil or graduate – in the 17th century; an early reference combines the notions of alumnus and alma mater: ‘Lieutenant Governor … promised his Interposition for them, as become such an Alumnus to such an Alma Mater’, William Sewall’s Diary 12 October 1696. The first example of the feminine form, alumna, comes in the 1880s.