The virtues of Latin

August 22, 1997

SUE WILKS'S potential legal challenge on the "sexist" bachelors and masters degrees awarded by UK universities (THES, August 15) raises interesting issues. Could I suggest a solution to her campaign (with which I sympathise)?

One of the few advantages of still awarding degrees in Latin, as Oxford does, is that (unlike English) Latin is an inflected language and admits of gender variation. Magister Artium, the masculine form which underlies MA, can equally be Magistra Artium, the feminine, likewise the masculine Baccalaureatus Artium, underlying BA, can equally be the feminine Baccalaureata Artium.

Consequently, female Oxford graduates are naturally referred to by their proper gender in the university's official Latin. Even bachelor, as in Bachelor of Arts, can be interpreted in a non-sexist manner in Latin. Though it certainly comes from the vernacular use of bachelor for young man, in the Latin of Oxford degrees the form Baccalaureatus/a appears to be a pun of bachelor, since it is strictly etymologically derived from bac(c)a lauri, "bay berry", areference to the (metaphorical?) garlanding with bay of successful candidates rather than to theirgender (similarly the Frenchbaccalaureat).

Leeds University, where Ms Wilks is studying for her MA, may still officially use Latin for degree titles. If so, her degree title could easily be translated as Mistress of Arts in its existing form. If not, I am sure their excellent school of classics could oblige with non-sexist Latin versions.

STEPHEN HARRISON

Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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