Foreigners often suffer under the delusion that we use language to communicate while, as we all know, it is quite the reverse. Why else do we call one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, New College? Why is Cambridge’s May Week in June? Why call private schools, public schools and why, for heaven’s sake, describe them as charities unless out of a sense of irony. Eton, formerly known as King’s College of Our Lady of Eton Beside Windsor, was originally founded to educate the poor. They are called public schools because, like municipal toilets, they are open to any member of the paying public, while, in fact, mostly to those whose placentas are buried in the family vault.
By the same token, Jesus College Cambridge is not in fact its name. It is ‘The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge,’ which is a little difficult to fit on the t-shirt. Ragemund was a Frankish princess, a concubine of Clothar I, King of the Franks, who burned his son and family to death. Understandably, Radegung legged it and founded a convent, as you would. No wonder she remained a virgin, unless that is a courtesy title given that she was, after all, a concubine.
So, when thinking of Jesus College think homicidal regicides rather than Siân Lloyd, the ITV weather forecaster and winner of the crown at the Urdd National Eisteddfod, who left after one year of a Celtic studies course, though not to found a convent. St. Radegund, incidentally, is also the name of the smallest pub in Cambridge, home to the Vera Lynn Appreciation Society, where enthusiasts gather to drink gin and tonic to the tune of “Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover,” bluebirds, of course, being non-existent not only over Dover but the whole of the United Kingdom, though I suspect that might have been a deliberate mis-direction aimed at the Hun who at the time had just completed the annual works outing to Belgium, a country which recently fulfilled Thoreau’s dictum, ‘that government is best that governs not at all’
If that seems fanciful, incidentally, following Dunkirk, when we were braced for invasion, the masterstroke was to turn all the signposts round the wrong way. The idea was that the Germans would invade, dutifully follow the signposts, and find themselves back in France. Metaphorically, linguistically, we have never turned them back again.
Much in that spirit, King’s College is more correctly The King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge, Saint Nicholas being an anti-Aryan, which must have sat uneasily with members of the Hitler-admiring aristocracy in the run-up to World War II.
Meanwhile, in Oxford, where they do things differently, but not very, Jesus College is in fact Jesus College in the University of Oxford of Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation, not to be confused with Queen Elizabeth’s Foundation, a charity for the disabled which stages an annual Guinness and Oyster Lunch. This is described as ‘a stand up event,’ though given the Guinness, not to mention the disabled, that seems unlikely. Trinity College, meanwhile, is The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in the University of Oxford, of the Foundation of Sir Thomas Pope, Pope allegedly founding the college so he would be remembered by the Fellows every time they said their prayers. The Fellows were required to remain unmarried and spend their time meditating, as well they might since it would be a few hundred more years before women would be admitted. I suspect, therefore, that they prayed for something other than the Pope family.
All Souls Oxford is actually The Warden and College of the Souls of all Faithful People deceased in the University of Oxford, which is a touch creepy. Kellog College is at least what it says on the packet being named after a vegetarian-Seventh-Day-Adventist horse-breeding- manufacturer of corn flakes.
Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius was originally Gonville Hall and then The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the annunciation being the announcement of impending pregnancy no doubt to this day a frequent occurrence in that college.
In Ireland, meanwhile, where they have a way with language, Trinity College is The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth Near Dublin, the Queen Elizabeth being something of an embarrassment and the Irish meaning of ‘near’ not being too apparent given that it is now located plum in the middle of the city. But then this is a country that boasts an airline whose destinations are not necessarily as advertised.
In America, Yale was named for a Welshman called Elihu Yale who donated 417 books and a portrait of George I, the latter probably losing in value with the arrival of George III. Harvard was established in Cambridge — the early settlers being short on originality when it came to place names (see New London on the Thames in Connecticut). It was created with funds from the English minister John Harvard who on his deathbed bequeathed money to the ‘schoale or colledge’ recently set up, the need for which being evident in his cavalier approach to spelling. He was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a college established by a Puritan Chancellor of the Exchequer (is there another kind?) whose response to the college’s decision in 2006 to allow the blessing of same-sex couples can only be imagined.
But at least he spoke English. The French, of course, perversely prefer French, even when it comes to aviation whose international language is officially English, which is why American air traffic controllers call French flights the “keskidi flights,” a reference to French pilots’ alarming habit of saying ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il dit?’