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The topography of Oxford

Old legends of a bygone past transcribed in an obscure chronicle tells us that Oxford used to host human beings. At those remote times, students were allowed to stroll around the city, promenade in the parks and joyfully gather together to celebrate in the streets of this legendary place. Alas, since ‘things that should not have been forgotten were lost, and history became a legend, and legend became myth’, I would like to recall those long-forgotten serene times.  

Students who did not previously study at Oxford, or who dared to come to this sceptred isle  from farfetched lands (informally known as international students) were immediately made comfortable  with WhatsApp messages from other flatmates saying “did you pick your Bod card and fob at the  lodge?”, “let’s meet in week 7 of Hillary”, “do you like LMH?”, “how was the tute?” and “see you at ChC meadows at the college boathouse.” 

This was particularly fascinating were you an international student still struggling to figure out how to say ‘strainer’ in English, having spent your entire academic English learning career being taught much more important things, such as the urgency for the use of the Oxford comma. After a glorious  C2 certification you felt like you had cracked it, and then you realised not being able to identity ten names of flowers, birds or everyday objects. Ironically, to many non-native speakers, terms like ‘grater’,  ‘strainer’, and ‘toenail clipper’ are more obscure than ‘ubiquitous’.  

The first thing you had to learn at Oxford, back at the time, was not how to avoid your pyjamas being spotted when you inadvertently turn on the video on Zoom or Teams, but the vocabulary. Of course, the first reference would have been Carfax. “Let’s meet at Carfax”, told a friend. And I replied, “do you mean Halifax?”, followed by a rush of laughter. Carfax Tower apparently marks the alpha and omega of the city centre, the meeting point of all activities.

Then there were more obscure terms: “see you in Cowley”. I must admit that given the notoriously well-articulated British pronunciation I honestly believed they were referring to a certain Cow Lake, which I then presumed to be located in Christchurch Meadow, given the cows. It appears that it is the name of the vibrant area south of Oxford.  

And then came the most dreadful reference, “do you live in Jericho.” This was most confusing. I  knew that there was Jericho in Jordan but I also recalled that in the Bible the city was destroyed by  God’s wrath, and at the sound of the angels’ trumpets “the wall of the city fell down flat”. Was it a bad omen? Was my friend wishing my house to fall flat as well? I then discovered that Jericho is an affluent area north of Oxford.  

Even more bemusing were the names of colleges. I still remember when a friend told me he “lived at Jesus”. I thought his main was not totally sound, or that he was probably a fervent believer. I  googled ChC the first time I was told to reach my college’s boathouse there. No one told me that there were no lights and that wandering through ChC meadows after 7 pm and a rainy day is the most medieval experience you will ever go through. Suspiciously observed by menacing cows, desperately trying to avoid the puddles, at a certain point I realised I had reached the river, and I had to wander for another hour trying to guess which coat of arms of the twenty-something boathouses belonged to my college.  

And then there are the others … Only at Oxford, a college founded in 1379 would be called  New College. Not to mention the love of Oxford student for unintelligible acronyms such as LMH,  GTC or ChC. Then there is St. Catz. (a name that really does sound bad in a certain Romance  language), which ominously points to an idolatrous cult of animals. For anyone who has a rudimentary knowledge of Latin saying “I study at Corpus” will sound tragicomical. I gently replied, “do you mean you are studying a corpus of texts.” Poor Corpus Christi; and this truncation comes despite Corpus Christi having been one of the most important festivities of medieval Europe. I still remember how puzzled I was when a friend told me he studied at Exeter and yet at Oxford; at first, I presumed he had the gift of ubiquity (not really a superpower I would envy if it meant following two seminars at the same time). Some college names are even more puzzling. There is a Queen’s College but not a King’s  College, and it is one of the oldest colleges but yet nothing remains of its original foundations.  

Then there is Magdalen. I once gestured at the college exclaiming “this is  Magdalen” (pronouncing the name of the college how the personal name is), and my friend was quick to point out that the pronunciation of the name of the college was different, even though no one could explain why. Apparently it is because in the 1458 charter of the college the founder wanted the name of the college to be pronounced Maudelayne. A friend suggested it sounded like French, hence posh.  In my mind, the term madeleine in French just reminds me of a certain pastry, and of a too-often quoted passage in Proust’s recherche.  

And then there is the most puzzling name of them all: University College. I mean, isn’t it a bit pretentious? Did they come first and hence could spoil all other colleges of this prestigious denomination? How did it work? I can just imagine the other desperate founders of Oxford colleges,  struggling with saint and cities, when they discovered that the name ‘University’ was already taken. There was no solace for these good-willing people after the others had already taken a French-sounding name, St. John’s, New, Exeter, University and Queen’s. No wonder they had to resort to names of people, such as Pembroke or other fancy French names no one can spot (apparently Oriel derives from a property called La oriole, I wonder if it is connected to the bird).  

That is all, or at least this is what I remember of that bygone past when you could go from  Cowley to Jericho passing through Carfax, and endless colleges whose names I will never grasp.

Art by Rachel Jung

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