January 3rd, 2007
Going meta / alumni/-ae
by Barbara Wallraff
Jim Springhetti, of Portland, Ore., writes: “‘Meta’ -- my wife says I use this word incorrectly. For instance, I might make a comment such as ‘You look incredible’ as she gets ready for work. She doesn’t respond directly but comments on the comment: ‘I’m late. You had your chance last night.’ I say she’s ‘going meta,’ because she leaps to the conclusion that I’m trying coax her back into bed. She says that’s not an appropriate use of the word ‘meta.’ Which, by my logic, is another instance of ‘going meta,’ because she is commenting on my use of the word ‘meta’ rather than on the point I’m trying to make. It gets confusing. Can you help?”
Dear Jim: Congratulations to both of you for knowing the phrase “going meta” -- even if you disagree about what it means.
Jeff Potter, of Shelburne Falls, Mass., writes: “A local private school has started printing ‘alumni/-ae notes.’ Is this an educational trend? What is your opinion of gender-neutral Latin?”
Dear Jeff: Once we started saying “fire fighter” instead of “fireman,” “chair” instead of “chairman” or “chairwoman” and so on, I suppose “alumni/-ae” became inevitable. In classical Latin, the masculine form “alumni” was used for mixed-sex groups. But there just never seems to be a place for an alumni publication to put an asterisk and a footnote pointing that out, to justify ignoring “alumnae.” Besides, the footnote would only cause readers to object that ancient Rome was benightedly patriarchal and we mustn’t be bound by its conventions. It’s true. No self-respecting ancient Roman would have written “alumni/-ae.” But we aren’t in Rome, and we needn’t do as the Romans once did.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.