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It is well-known that the English language has borrowed a lot of words from other languages throughout the centuries. Most of these have a meaning that is either the same as in the original language or is slightly modified for figurative reasons - e.g. the word robot (borrowed from the sci-fi plays of a Czech author) literally means a "worker" or the word cannibal (inspired from the endonym Caniba of an indigenous tribe in the Caribbeans, which practiced man-eating) meant in the original language a "human".

There is though a minority of foreign words, usually of Latin origin, whose meaning in English was once the same as in the primary language but eventually has changed due to frequent incorrect usage. A notorious example for this is the phrase:

Someone graduates...

which principally should be:

Someone is graduated...

since the action of graduation is performed by the education body, not by the student.

My question in this relation is how one should apply such foreign words (with an altered, dubious meaning) - in the "proper, but archaic" or in the "improper, but well-established" way?

PS The main motivation for my inquiry is the phrase fresh alumnus, which I'd like to use in the sense "recently graduated (male) student" in a letter to the Head of School of my former college... What bothers me is that the word alumni in Latin referred to any student (graduated or not) / member of staff of an institution, so I worry that fresh alumnus may be perceived as a "recently accepted (male) student".

closed as unclear what you're asking by FumbleFingers, Hot Licks, Edwin Ashworth, jimm101, curiousdannii Apr 3 '16 at 2:54

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    For the modern (English) interpretation, surely nothing special required, so by default (unless you are writing perhaps to a Latin professor!) it always means "recently graduated (male) student". – k1eran Apr 2 '16 at 12:22
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    Unless you have a really good reason for doing otherwise, consult a reliable ("name brand") dictionary and use the definitions found there, avoiding any identified as archaic. And use your judgment and avoid completely words that you are unsure of and cannot get a clear "fix" on using the dictionary. – Hot Licks Apr 2 '16 at 12:50
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    (And can you identify a word in English that is not "foreign"?) – Hot Licks Apr 2 '16 at 12:53
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    I don't understand the point of this question. So what if alumnus originally meant [any] student in Latin? I'm sure all modern English dictionaries will define the current sense as former student. Words mean whatever the majority agree on today, not what some pedantic etymologist might be able to dig up about related usages in dead languages. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '16 at 13:04
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    A notorious example for this is the phrase: Someone graduates... which principally should be: Someone is graduated... since the action of graduation is performed by the education body, not by the student. // I'll say you've made three errors (ignoring the phrase or clause issue) there. // A celebrated example for this is the expression: Someone graduates which once would almost always have been rendered: Someone is graduated since the action of graduation was always considered to be performed by the education body, not by the student. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 '16 at 15:08
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Once a word has come to be used in English, its meaning in Latin or any other language is a complete irrelevance. It may have an English meaning which is very close to its original meaning, or one which is utterly different. Sometimes it has both, and different people use it in different ways.

In every case, what matters is its meaning in English. If you insist on using a word in a different way from most people (whether on account of its former meaning or for any other reason) you risk being misunderstood, or thought strange. If you choose to use a word which has acquired divergent meanings, again you might be misunderstood.

I avoid using the word crescendo except in its technical musical sense ("getting louder") because, as a musician, I do not like its present-day English meaning of "a climax". But I do not pretend not to understand when people use it that way, or try to "correct" them; and I would generally not pointedly use it in a non-musical context in a way which is at odds with its present meaning in English.

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The main motivation for my inquiry is the phrase fresh alumnus, which I'd like to use in the sense "recently graduated (male) student"

Sounds like you are describing a

Recent graduate

Here's an example of usage:

The Recent Graduate Program is a one-year program that targets individuals who have recently graduated from qualifying educational institutions or programs. Successful applicants will be placed in a dynamic, one year career development program.

usajobs.gov

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To underscore the futility of your task, consider how easy it is to get the "original" meanings wrong.

The Caniba, a tribe of the Abenaki (or Kennebec) Indians of Maine, did not lend their name to the word cannibal. That was the Caribes, whose name and dietary habits were misunderstood by Europeans.

The word robot did not mean worker. It meant forced laborer, and it was adapted by Karel Čapek for his play R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. His robots were synthesized humans but without souls or emotions. Since our biochemical capabilities aren't up to that of 1920's fiction, our robots are strictly mechanical.

For modern discourse, "proper but archaic" is a contradiction. One guide might be the age of the usage that you consider improper, and here the OED is a valuable tool. The use of graduate as an action of a student dates from the 1870s; the use of alumnus to describe one with past attendance at a school, from the 1690s.

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