Student or Pupil?

Sorting out the labels for students past and present is a lesson in itself. Both pupil and student describe one who is in school or under the charge of a teacher. (In its earliest usage pupil referred only an elementary school student, and a male one at that; it is derived from the Latin pupus, which originally meant “boy.”) The word scholar is sometimes applied to a graduate student working toward a specialized degree.

Outside the classroom, a pupil (past or present) is tutored by a famous or distinguished person – say, Stephen Hawking – but a student of Hawking studies the man himself and his writings. A scholar who may or may not have left the halls of academe is one who devotes herself to the study of a particular subject – “a scholar of Islam”; “a scholar of ancient Greek literature.”

Then there are those potentially confusing terms for former students. Herewith their definitions:

Alumnus = male former student

Alumna = female former student

Alumni = Traditionally, the plural for alumnus*

Alumnae = plural for alumna (female)

* The source of confusion. At more than a few schools, alumni is applied to students of both sexes.

One Response to Student or Pupil?

  • Erik Kowal says:

    I also regularly encounter ‘an alumni’, ‘a bacteria’ and ‘a criteria’. All of these are solecisms in relation to the singular or plural forms as they would have appeared in the original Latin, but popular English usage appears to be well on the way to trumping those forms.

    Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that once they have been assimilated into English, foreign words and constructions will stay constrained by the rules that governed them in the language(s) from which they were borrowed. Meanwhile, the non-standard forms are liable to irritate those who are familiar with the parent-language forms, but such is the emotional cost of linguistic evolution. :-)

    To digress somewhat, here is not a misspelled Latin term, but another amusing eggcorn I recently came across: ‘Spelling not-see’ (for ‘spelling Nazi’).

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