Maybe it’s time to give up the struggle. My temptation is to say, “All right, all you people on loudspeakers in big box stores, and all of you behind a microphone: It’s alright to call it ‘jew-lery.”
It seems easier that way. We hear it on radio commercials: jew-lery; even jewelers, who make a living selling jewel-ry, still insist on putting the “l” in front of the “r.”
A language cop from way back, I’ve harped on the subject often. Strange that people seem to spell it right, even if they can’t pronounce it. The key element is “jewel.” So why is it so difficult to simply add “ry” to “jewel”?
We often pick up pronunciation through analogy, the letter combinations of other words. We say “celery” and “cutlery,” two words that might lead us to say “jew-lery.” But when do people use even these words except at a salad bar or kitchen?
That thought, and a number of others, came to mind Friday morning at the homecoming breakfast, hosted annually by President James Fries of Highlands University. I responded to the invitation and, camera in hand, showed up for the breakfast. I met a young woman who told me about having earned a degree from Highlands and about wanting to continue supporting it.
At our table were several purple-and-white pins for the taking, about three inches across, with the words: HU Alumni. In a teasing tone, I told the young lady, “You know, you’re not a Highlands alumni.”
“Of course I am. I have my B.A. to prove it.”
Do we misuse “alumni” as frequently as we butcher “jew-lery”? I was being picky that morning, teasing the young lady and about to mention that “alumni” is plural: Two or more are alumni but when it’s only one, it’s “alumnus.”
We English speakers often struggle with Greek and Latin roots and rules, especially when it comes to gender, singulars and plurals. By dint of constant use of these words — not to mention the threat of a lowered grade if I made that error in class, I believe I learned the difference, painfully.
And after I became a language cop-alumnus, I really tried. But maybe that’s a word that will always be misused.
The alumni-alumnus matter is easy to get wrong, as we’ve been conditioned to regard words that end with an “s” as plurals.
I’ve written about how some people take the lazy way out of decision-making by simply referring to any graduate as an “alum” — that way we don’t worry about number or gender. But that’s a cop-out. And isn’t alum found in a spice can in our kitchen cabinet?
Interested in the terms the way the dictionary handles them?
Alumnus is singular, alumni plural. In most references, an alumnus is male. And what’s the word for a female graduate? Alumna. What about more than one female graduate? That’s alumnae.
If you see a mixed group of graduates, call them alumni. It’s getting too complicated, almost making one wish there were no college degrees or graduates and therefore no need to use these complicated words.
Ah, but just as I thought it was safe to head out of the deep linguistic waters, I saw a new twist. Let me explain:
We used to have a frequent letter-to-the-editor writer who referred to himself as an “alumni” of Highlands. I posited that because he never graduated, he couldn’t be an alumni or an alumnus. But what have we here? Most dictionaries don’t use graduation as a criteria (I obviously mean the singular, criterion, but that’s another example of language confusion) for the alum designation. Someone who’s merely attended school at some point qualifies as an alumnus.
And that datum (singular for data) brings this issue to a close.
I have two Highlands alumni stick-on pins that I wear on my shirt during homecoming. I saved one last year. The pins define me as an alumni.
Not so, unless there are two of me.
• • •
Heard on radio Monday about a dozen times: “That’s a criteria of the program.” That word is defined as a standard by which something is judged.
People seldom seem to use the singular form, “criterion.” Just like “alumni,” “criteria takes a plural verb: “There are several criteria for aceing this class. One criterion is perfect attendance.”
• • •
I can feel and share a glow when people are justifiably proud. My (almost) next-door neighbors, Ben and Peggy Hoogerhuis, are glowing over an item that appeared in a University of New Mexico Law School publication.
Their grandson, Curtis Vigil, an accountant with the School of Law since 2010, is featured in an article, clad in his zebra stripes, officiating a basketball game. According to his uncle, Ron Hoogerhuis, Curtis belongs to a fairly large family of multi-sport athletes, having helped Robertson High School’s athletic fortunes for several years.
Curtis earned a B.A. degree in finance from Highlands in 2005. He and his wife, Robin, and their sons Ajay and Javen reside in Rio Rancho.
Curtis officiates high school basketball games as well as Division II Men’s and Women’s college basketball in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
• • •
Look for a new word to replace “like” as the most commonly inserted piece of filler in conversation. Listen, my children, and you shall hear the word “literally” incessantly whispered in your ear.
“He was literally on fire at the game!” No he wasn’t; he just scored a lot of points. “Mom literally exploded when she saw I wrecked the car!” No she wasn’t, and her body didn’t leave shrapnel all over the carport. But she was angry.
And we also hear expressions like, “I was literally on my hands and knees, begging for a better grade.” No you weren’t; you were on your cell phone composing a nasty note to your teacher.
Many these now-very-common expressions are likely to join existing filler words. Their overuse is destined to drive us all batty — but not literally.