Last August, Ann Thomas of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith shared something interesting on the ALUMNI-L listserv. It's a short article from the AO Foundation, a "medically guided non-profit" devoted to educating surgeons. The article discusses the origin and meaning of the word "alumni." When I read it, I realized that in my 19 years in the profession, I had never seen the etymology of the word.
The author of the article, Dr. Antonio Pace, is the president of the Foundation's alumni association in Europe. He tells us that the word alumni
is Latin [and] derives from the verb alere, which means 'to bring up,' 'to nourish'...In Latin literature, the term alumnus is used frequently...to indicate "he who is nourished by a person who is not a natural parent."
In ancient times, Dr. Pace continues, the word referred to abandoned children, who would often be sheltered and raised by foster parents. He adds that
the meaning of the term was extended to those persons who receive an intellectual nourishment, like the one people receive at school. Therefore, alumni became the students who are intellectually nourished at school, outside the familiar sphere.
Personally, I like the idea that the institution's relationship to the alumnus is one of "nourishment," which can be the intellectual variety that Dr. Pace mentions. It can also be a more practical educational nourishment, or it can refer to the personal development students ideally experience while enrolled at our institutions.