Saturday, September 22, 2012

Alma Mater, cafeteria

Brian from Petoskey called to ask about the phrase alma mater. Originally applied to certain Roman Goddesses, it meant “nurturing or bounteous mother.” Eventually, it was applied to schools, which are supposed to nurture the minds of their students.

Brian asked if alumnus was connected to alma mater. I replied that they came from different words: alma, the feminine form of an adjective meaning nurturing, and alumnus, the masculine form of a noun meaning child, ward, or pupil. What I missed on air was that they both came in turn from the verb alere, to nourish.

A wildcard search of the online Oxford English Dictionary revealed that other words have the same mother.
  • abolish: literally, to keep someone away from nourishment.
  • adolescent: to provide nourishment to encourage growth.
  • alible: nourishing or nutritious. [rare]
  • aliment: physical nourishment or sustenance.
  • alimony: literally, food money.
  • alition: the act of providing nourishment.  [obs.]
  • aliture: nourishment.  [obs. rare]
  • alterage: raising a foster child
  • althea: an edible plant, the marsh mallow.
  • altion: the act of nourishing. [obs. rare]
  • altricial: referring to a bird or animal too young to live on its own.
  • old: originally, able to feed oneself.

Alimentary, my dear Watson.

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