Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just go back one entry to play with the Quail Family on holiday. Then come back and join me and Alan as we continue our exploration of some of the mysteries of American university life.
ALAN: What are the fraternities and sororities that seem to be so much a part of American university life? I don’t think we have any equivalent of those…
JANE: I never got involved with fraternities or sororities, so I can only give the most general answer. I believe they started out as organizations to recognize and promote academic achievement.
Later, the “social” fraternity or sorority evolved. These were, at least as I see them, networking organizations, intended to help students make contacts that would be useful in later life. Often the members did community volunteer work or fund-raising for charities as well. In some cases, however, the organizations simply devolved into places to go for a party.
Again, this is a topic where our readers will probably be able to tell you more than I can.
ALAN: In descriptions I’ve read and films that touch on it, it seems that fraternities and sororities are organised in a “secret society” way, rather like the freemasons – though I don’t recall any mention of secret handshakes and the rolling up of one trouser leg. I have read about arcane fraternal initiation rituals, and hazing (a word we don’t have, though I know what it means) that sometimes gets quite out of hand. If that kind of thing was done to random strangers in the street, the perpetrators would end up in court. How do they get away with it under the fraternal umbrella?
JANE: I’m not certain that hazing is much tolerated any more. Certainly, there have been a good many protests about the abuse aspect.
I think the idea behind the hazing was to create a bond, something in the way of “We’ve all been through the same ordeal.” However, frankly, it gives me the creeps.
ALAN: Me too! I hate bullying in all its many manifestations.
The fraternities and sororities all seem to have names made up from seemingly random combinations of Greek letters. Why? And will any Greek letters do, or do certain combinations have mystical significance?
JANE: I have no idea! Maybe someone who has been through the system can help out. Let me ask…
Okay. I’ve done some asking. I think you’ll be interested to learn that most people seem to have no idea. I’m on a list with a lot of very knowledgeable people – many of them writers or editors who glory in obscure knowledge. I asked if any of them knew the answer to your question based on personal experience – not a wiki search or anything like that. The only response I got was a flippant one from editor Gardner Dozois. He said, “It’s Greek to me.”
ALAN: I find it fascinating that nobody seems to have asked themselves that seemingly very obvious question. Maybe it’s not as obvious as I thought it was. Or perhaps it just indicates an acceptance of the status quo simply because it is the status quo…
JANE: I think you’re right about that. Now, I didn’t stop with the one list. Next I went to Debbie Davis, whose sorority, Beta Sigma Phi, invited me to be a speaker a few months ago.
Debbie said: “According to my handbook for training, our Greek letter name grew out of the motto chosen; first letters of Greek words for Life, Learning & Friendship. A “secret” meaning. On the web page for Beta Sigma Phi is the following: “BIOS – signifies the importance we place in the art of living, SOPHIA – expresses quality of learning, PHILOS – expresses idea of friendship, or Life, Learning and Friendship.”
ALAN: So obviously only classical scholars can start a fraternity…
JANE: Heh… Next, I asked my friend, Paul, who was so helpful on the topic of letter sweaters. He said:
“From what I can make out, it’s one of those deals where it’s simply ‘always’ been that way. It seems to have started with the formation of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, back in 1776 at the College of William & Mary. That was not really a fraternity or sorority but more an organization to recognize academic achievement, but, when fraternities and sororities came along, they just
adopted the Greek letter designation, too.
“I can’t speak from a lot of fraternity experience. I had friends in college who were members of the three fraternities we had on campus, but I remained what they called a Gamma Delta Iota (a God Damned Independent). I just never joined any.”
ALAN: I love it! On a slightly related note (and Latin rather than Greek), I had some friends who organised themselves into a drinking club. They coined a motto for the club: Bibo Ergo Sum (I drink therefore I am). I think that exhibits the same kind of irreverent humour as Gamma Delta Iota…
Movies such as “Animal House” suggest that fraternities are full of shallow self-absorbed party animals with few, if any, redeeming traits. Obviously “Animal House” exaggerates greatly for the sake of comic effect, but is there some grain of truth in that assumption?
JANE: I can’t say from personal experience. Lynchburg College, where I taught for five years, did have its share of fraternities and sororities. I know the members did charity events. For several years I taught “Business Writing” (how to do resumes, cover letters, proposals, stuff like that). I had a lot of nice, clean-cut, frat boys as students. Every year, we’d go through the same routine.
Student – “Dr. Lindskold, will you please come and donate blood? Our frat is running a blood drive.”
Dr. Lindskold – “Absolutely. I’m O Negative and that means I’m a universal donor. However, we’re going to make a deal. If I show up, you don’t cut class on the grounds you were too busy with your blood drive. Deal?”
Student – “You bet!”
And, you know, Alan. They always kept the deal, so I think there was more to them than wild party animals.
ALAN: That certainly gives a much more sensible and acceptable impression of frats (and sors? – what’s the accepted plural abbreviation of sororities?) than my original rather muddled ideas had suggested to me.
JANE: Now it’s your turn. As we’ve been discussing the oddities American education – or at least the rituals and terms associated with it – I realized I have a few questions for you.
ALAN: Well, I’ve been though the English system all the way from primary school to university and I have the scars to prove it. Ask away!