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Grammar Moment: Alma Mater

“Praise to thee, our Alma Mater.” We sing this a lot as part of “Varsity” (or not, if you hate to sing), but have you given much thought to what an alma mater is?

Paula Apfelbach ‘83
February 27, 2014

"Praise to thee, our Alma Mater.” We sing this a lot as part of “Varsity” (or not, if you hate to sing), but have you given much thought to what an alma mater is?

The term is Latin for nourishing (also kind, fostering, dear, or bountiful) mother. It was used in ancient Rome as a title for various mother goddesses — especially Ceres or Cybele — and later in Christianity to refer to the Virgin Mary.

These days, it can mean the school, college, or university that you attended (and, usually, from which you graduated); or the anthem (song of praise or allegiance) of said school. Therefore, to a UW-Madison graduate, both the university and the song “Varsity” can be an alma mater.

You can capitalize it or not. Our dictionary of choice prefers lowercase, but the lyrics of the song seem to capitalize it.

And the plural? If you’re a Latin speaker (and I know that many of you are, even though you don’t show off around the office), you’d say almae matres. We modern folk say alma maters.

Examples: Hillaire the tuna was proud to belong to the alumni association of his alma mater, the Jacques Cousteau Undersea College, and to sing its alma mater, “Hail to Thee, O Ichthyology.”

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