Bops, battels, blazers, fifth week blues, carnations, collections, crew dates, college marriages, cuppers, quads, subfusc, sconcing, sharking, shoeing, scouts, porters, pidges, punting, plodge, matriculation, trashings, tutes, Torpids, JCR, MCR, SCR.
For those at Oxford, there’s nothing strange about this list. These words form an important part of our everyday vocabulary, and their meanings a valuable part of our everyday life. But for people outside of the Oxford bubble, it’s a foreign language.
Oxford traditions are a crucial part of our student experience, but for those unacquainted with Oxford’s quirks, they can appear elitist and alienating. Some of the greatest moments we have at this university are our experiences of these traditions. Matriculation is a rite of passage: it’s the day that we’re allowed to be proud, even smug, about the fact we managed to make it to Oxford. As Maisie, a JCR Access Rep, says: “events like matriculation made me realise how lucky I am to be studying here.” For one day, we are allowed to acknowledge that being here is, in itself, an achievement.
As annoying as it is to scroll through your Facebook feed in mid-October and only see excitable freshers clad in subfusc re-enacting that famous Bullingdon Club photo, it is the moments like these that we remember. These traditions are more than just a source for Facebook likes, they make us feel like we’re part of something.
It may be a pain not being able to sit exams in more comfortable clothes, but there is something to be said for the ceremony of putting on subfusc: adding the ribbon/tie/bow-tie, putting on the gown, and pinning on the first white carnation which had (hopefully, if they didn’t forget) been bought by your college family and put in your pidge. Subfusc has been a contentious issue in the past, with OUSU conducting a student referendum in 2014 about getting rid of it. Given that 75.8 per cent (6403 students) voted to keep it, it’s clear where the students stand. Despite its oddness, we love subfusc.
It does definitely has its perks. In the same way we enjoy dressing up in black tie for the balls, it can be fun to put on subfusc. Even when looking at the concept from an access perspective, it isn’t all bad. On one hand, subfusc is designed to separate town from gown.
Yet, on the other hand, subfusc acts as a school uniform. It is an equaliser. Just as, when we were at school, uniform prevented judgement based on clothing—the same applies for subfusc. Once we are in subfusc, we all appear equal—we’ll all be equally screwed anyway if that one topic comes up that no one understands.
This was one of the main arguments put forward during the subfusc referendum in 2014. At the time, one student campaigner, Harrison Edmonds, said: “I think it sends a positive message from the students in Oxford that subfusc isn’t elitist but is egalitarian. No matter your background, race, class or gender, when you go into exams wearing the gown, you are equal.”
Indeed, as another Oxford student, Vicky, says: “It’s just some clothes, so really not that deep—it’s not like we all go around doing Bullingdon club-esque activities all day everyday—the traditions are kind of endearing in that sense?”
The uniform aspect also helps to put people in an exam mind-set. There are some traditions which we need to re-evaluate, but in the same way that we shouldn’t just blindly accept the institutions and traditions we have inherited at Oxford, we should not mindlessly reject them out of fear of being branded as pretentious and elitist. Some of these traditions retain their meaning; they are still important to students.
Oxford traditions and lingo help to form a unified student identity. For many, the collegiate system dominates a lot of what we do here. When so much of our university life revolves around college, we need things that unite us as Oxford students—other than the sense of impending dread when beginning an essay crisis or entering a tute far less prepared than you would have liked. We all have college families, wear carnations to exams, and spend extortionate amounts of money on confetti in Celebrations—these are traditions that unite us.
We do still need to remember that our jargon and traditions can appear superior and have damaging effects. It doesn’t take long for the traditions and terminology of Oxford to become routine. Our familiarity with trashings, tutes, and Torpids often allows us to forget that, for the majority, these words are meaningless. It becomes a problem when these traditions and terminology become alienating. It may just be your friend visiting from another university sitting quietly for ten minutes while you’re chatting before eventually asking ‘what are bops?’. But it may also be a nervous 17-year-old, already daunted by Oxford, finding that these traditions cement their fears of the posh, old, intimating university.
This opinion was echoed by some of the people who I spoke to. Maisie said: “A student considering applying here could easily be put off when hearing about all of these alien traditions, as it could definitely make you feel like you wouldn’t fit in, or Oxford isn’t for people like you.”
Even if the only impact is that someone visiting from another university is confused and alienated during conversation, and there is no impact on prospective applicants, this can still be damaging. It perpetuates the Oxford stereotype amongst our peers and creates an elitist image which will follow us into the workplace.
It is important that we continue to check ourselves. Especially in the context of open days and other opportunities to interact with prospective students who may be intimidated by the vast, confusing system that is Oxford, we need to remain vigilant. They’ll learn the difference between Hilary and Trinity when they get here, but for the time being it’s vital that they still want the chance to get here.
For some, a part of that decision will be determined by whether Oxford lives up to the snobbish image it retains. As Immie, a member of Pembroke JCR, points out: “when they are taken too seriously they can become more than symbols of the university’s culture and can be used by some to exclude others.”
The University continues to try to shake this image, putting increasing amounts of money towards the cause. Speaking to Cherwell on the topic of Oxford traditions and their possible negative impact on outreach, a spokesperson from the University said: “Outreach activities such as the annual UNIQ summer school bring students from under-represented backgrounds to Oxford to become familiar with its colleges, tutorial system and traditions.
“This allows young people to see for themselves what life as a student here is really like.”
Yet all this can fall short if the students themselves don’t reflect the image the university aim to put forward. Avoiding the foreign language that is Oxford lingo is a small step, but a crucial one.
Talking to students in Oxford, a few things became obvious. It was clear that these traditions are close to our hearts—they make Oxford unique and we shouldn’t underestimate the positive impact they can have. People love dressing up for bops and going to formal.
Many traditions are not just there for the sake of it—they are maintained because they are enjoyable in themselves. The fact that they are Oxford-specific traditions is irrelevant to our enjoyment of them.
Yet people are conflicted. We all know of the pretentiousness that is associated with Oxford, and have had the conversations with friends at other universities insisting that it’s ‘not that bad’. Equally, we can’t help but enjoy formals, croquet, and crew dates. We should also recognise that Oxford is not alone in having traditions and quirks. All universities share in these oddities, it’s just that the list is longer for Oxford.
For the time being, our traditions and jargon are here to stay. Oxford’s peculiarities may have the ability to be damaging, but we shouldn’t immediately run to abolish them—they hold a special place in our hearts. Going into that last exam wouldn’t be as tolerable without the red carnation, and coming out of it definitely wouldn’t be as fun without the trashing.