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February 08, 2009

One Month In, and Names

Greetings from Oxford! I've been in Oxford for a whole month now with Summit Oxford, and despite the difficulty, I am grateful for the intensity of this programme. I've been told that extended interest and inquisitiveness are essential to diligent study. In order to know something, one must be alert and engaged to pick up and comprehend the subtleties. There is more to learning than these two attributes, but it is the best place to start.

One question I have had since being accepted into Summit Oxford is, "Why on earth is the winter term at Oxford called Hilary Term?" I asked one of my tutors about this during our first meeting. He is professor of English, and I am studying Medieval English Literature with him. He didn't know the answer off the top of his head, but he knew where to look it up.

It turns out that, just like Michaelmas (fall) Term, the name comes from a feast day occurring around the start of the term. Saint Hilary was a bishop of Poitiers who is famous for opposing the Arian Heresy. Some bright people thought he ought to be remembered, and ascribed a feast day to him. Then, Oxford started their term near that same day, and named the term after it. Hilary of Poitiers would probably be forgotten but for his feast day. He is nearly forgotten regardless, but his name remains in the name of a university term.

I admit to feeling just a bit clever for asking a question that my tutor couldn't answer immediately. But then I wondered how many valuable traditions live in the names of everyday things. Names are, in part, memory aids. We either want to remember something, so we discover its name or assign a name to it, or we want to remember a person, or an idea, so we name something else after it.

As I have lived in Oxford, I have noticed an emphasis on memorials. Oxford is full of libraries, plaques, memorial sculptures on buildings, memorial crosses 20 feet tall and crosses marking graves in churchyards. I can hardly walk down a street without seeing a reminder of something I don't know about. There are probably hundreds of names, phrases and monuments at home in Colorado that I use or pass by daily without considering the reason for them. If I could just engage a bit more, I could experience the richness of hundreds of years of learning and remembering.

Thomas Phippen
Fellow, Hilary Term '09

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