In "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin", Volume II, Darwin was writing in a letter:

"Here is an odd chance; my nephew Henry Parker, an Oxford Classic, and Fellow of Oriel, came here this evening.

Does this mean that he has a degree of Classics from Oxford?

  • I think this question would be more appropriate on our sibling site Literature. We can't migrate your question to that site, but I recommend you post it there (and add to your post that it was initially asked at EL&U), then delete it from here. Jan 3 at 5:48
  • I’m voting to close this question because it's not about English usage but rather (a) asking about the titles used at a specific institution and (b) interpreting a specific passage in literature. Jan 3 at 5:51
  • I don't have any proof but I bet this is a reference to the Oxford World's Classics imprint of Oxford University Press, basically saying that a person is as excellent and definitive as one of those volumes. Jan 3 at 13:43
  • @ChappoHasn'tForgottenMonica: This is not about a title used at specific institution. And the accepted answer is incorrect. See my answer. Jan 3 at 17:10
  • 1
    @TinfoilHat None of the answers are incorrect. Rather, this is an opinion-based question because there is no definitive meaning of "Oxford classic", so it could mean anything.
    – Justin
    Jan 3 at 17:47

4 Answers 4


From a letter from Charles Darwin to J.D Hooker in 1874 (Source):

It is, if you ever attend the Balloting meetings of Athenæum Club, to attend the first one early in February & vote for my nephew, Henry Parker, & ask anyone whom you can influence. He is a fellow of Oriel College Oxford, & a most able & accomplished man, & I assure you in every way fitted to be a Member.

Here is one definition of classic:

An artist, author, or work generally considered to be of the highest rank or excellence, especially one of enduring significance.

(The Free Dictionary)

Darwin referred to Henry Parker as "a most able & accomplished man". This is in line with the above definition of classic. Henry Parker also studied at Oxford, which would then make him an "Oxford Classic". Similarly, a classic from Cambridge would be called a "Cambridge classic".

  • But I found a quote where someone from Eton was called an Oxford Classic. See my comment to Edwin's answer. I there aren't a countless instances of this usage anywhere. I struggled to find 3.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 3 at 13:31
  • @PhilSweet - Narrow down your search to "an Oxford classic". There are multiples instances of it being used to refer to a person, although, how and why it is used may depend on the context.
    – Justin
    Jan 3 at 14:03
  • @PhilSweet - For all we know, the boy could've been from Eton, Berkshire and may have studied at Oxford. The last sentence in your example says, "To others he ranks as a characteristic product of Oxford under certain conditions in the age of Lord Melbourne".
    – Justin
    Jan 3 at 16:57
  • @PhilSweet: This answer is incorrect, in my opinion. See my answer. A classic is "A student of Greek and Latin literature, a classical scholar." I am working on citations, along the lines of the one you provided, to bolster my answer. Jan 3 at 17:12
  • @TinfoilHat - But the OP is referring to the above context only and Henry Parker doesn't seem to be a classicist (see Edwin Ashworth's answer), so that sense of 'classic' is out of the question. Also, someone who studies Classics or has a degree in Classics isn't called a "Classic", but a 'classicist'.
    – Justin
    Jan 3 at 17:36

A classic is (or was, back in Darwin’s day) a student of Greek and Latin literature, or a classical scholar:

classic, adj. and n.
B. n.
2. b. A student of Greek and Latin literature, a classical scholar. Now rare.
1805   H. K. WHITE Let. 18 Oct. in Remains (1807) I. 179   I find I am a respectable classic.
1823   C. LAMB in London Mag. May 534/2   A fine classic, and a youth of promise.
1895   J. M. FALKNER Lost Stradivarius Epil. 260   He had always been an excellent scholar, and a classic of more than ordinary ability.
1907   E. M. FORSTER Longest Journey xvi. 190   He was not a good classic, but good enough to take the Lower Fifth.
1952   R. MACAULAY Let. 2 May (1961) 309   So many brilliant classics can’t do Maths, and vice versa.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)


Although I don’t see a reference to a specific degree for Henry Parker, he is listed in Darwin: A Companion as a “Classical Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford,” which would seem to qualify him as a classical scholar at Oxford — an Oxford Classic:

Parker, Henry [II], 1827-92. 2d child of Henry Parker [I] and Marianne Darwin. CD’s nephew. Classical Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. 1862 Reviewed Orchids in Saturday Rev. 1862 Dec. 29 Visited Down House. Unmarried.

English Men of Science mentions Parker as a “fellow of University College, Oxford, classical scholar and chemist.”


Here are more examples of classic meaning a student of Greek and Latin literature or a classical scholar:

If as Head Master I wanted some piece of work done, I should feel safer if I entrusted it to a mathematician or to an Oxford classic: fairly safe if my classic came from Cambridge: but profoundly uneasy if I had to give it to a scientist.
Things Ancient and Modern, Cyril Alington, 1936

A Cambridge mathematician and a Cambridge classic are the two new judges whose appointment was gazetted on Tuesday.
The Cambridge Review, Volume 28, 1907

An Oxford classic* has drawn a comparison of the observations made by Aristotle and Shakespeare respectively on the passions, habits, and institutions of mankind . . .
A Few Stray Thoughts Upon Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Howel, 1867
*Referring to Joseph Esmond Riddle, B.A. Classics

A pure classic is no more necessarily fit to teach English History than a mathematician is to teach Iambics!1
Clear Thinking, Or, An Englishman’s Creed, Leslie Cecil Smith, 1914
1 Although the Oxford classic has at least some general training in historical method.

The poet Wordsworth was not, like others of his family, a Cambridge Classic, but he spent much of his time, at Cambridge and afterwards, in desultory reading of the Classics . . .
The Scot’s Magazine Volume 5 1890

Nay, nay, we do not want a first-rate classic, or mathematician, or musician, or geologist, or anything of that kind. All we need is some one who will be kind to the books.
The Parochial (Oxford parochial) magazine [afterw.] The Oxford magazine and Church advocate, Volume 3, 1863

Of course a mind which has undergone systematic training of any kind has so far an advantage over an untrained mind in mastering any subject whatever, but the qualities of mind which make a man a good classic or mathematician arrive at maturity earlier than those which make him a philosopher.
The Student’s Guide to the University of Cambridge. By various writers. Edited by J. R. Seeley, University of Cambridge, Sir John Robert Seeley, 1866

He was a man of the highest order of human intellect — an accomplished physician, a learned writer on sacred subjects, a firstrate classic, mathematician , and musician.
Rambles about Bath, and its neighbourhood, James Tunstall, 1847

More at Google Books “classic” “mathematician” — 19th century


Just a couple of notes regarding some other answers here . . .

1. One imagines that, back in the day, Darwin would not have used the term Oxford Classic to mean, simply, an awesome student at Oxford.

2. Parker’s listing as a “fine art specialist” at Epsilon is due to his appearance in A supplement to Allibone’s Critical dictionary of English literature and British and American authors (CDEL) for his book The Nature of Fine Arts, published in 1885, when he was 58 years old (in other words, it doesn’t refer to his college major):

excerpt from CDEL

Source: A supplement to Allibone’s Critical dictionary of English literature and British and American authors

  • Yes; though the word is used in conflicting senses, and this individual instance cannot be tied down without actually researching biography, here 'classic' = 'classicist'. Jan 5 at 19:26

Merriam Webster

classic (noun):

a typical or perfect example

Hence, an Oxford Classic is a perfect example of an Oxford-educated person, regardless of their field of excellence. The term might apply to those educated in the Classics, the Arts, or any other field of study that was current in Oxford in Darwin's time.

Whether one regards classic as a noun or an adjectival noun does not seem to matter.

  • No. An Oxford classic, reasoning from the definition given, is more likely to be a paragon coming from Oxford. Jan 5 at 19:17

The noun classic has various subsenses. Merriam-Webster includes the relevant (though doubtless dated):

classic [noun]


2a: a work of enduring excellence

  • His manual of biology has become a classic among scientists.

also : its author

  • He had already become a classic many years before his death.

b: an authoritative source

If the noun were 'classicist', the field of study would certainly be the classics, but here there's doubt. 'A published Oxford scholar [at whatever level]' is more likely.


In fact, Henry Parker was perhaps a fine arts scholar rather than a classicist:

  • Henry Parker (1827–92) Fine art specialist. Scholar, University College, Oxford, 1846–51; fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, 1851–85. Son of CD’s sister, Marianne Parker. Sources Alum. Oxon.


[I've edited in line with Tinfoil Hat's research, attesting that Parker was indeed a classicist (as well as a 'fine art specialist').

  • Fifty Years at East Brent Letters of Archbishop Denison Edited by his Niece London Murray 128 net At the basis of his character lay the stubborn wilfulness of the old northern race of Englishmen and the plain habits and oldfashioned breeding of the same old type Every inch of his large physique belonged to the same breed He was an Eton boy and an Oxford classic of his age and school But of modern scholarship he knew little or nothing and of modern science if possible still less whether physical or metaphysical Such a man became not unnaturally the champion of immovable old High Anglicanism ...
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 2 at 15:12
  • books.google.com/…
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 2 at 15:12
  • 1
    I think there's something else going on here.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 2 at 15:14
  • Not a scientist, you say, Phil. He doesn't seem to have been a classicist either: 'Henry Parker (1827–92) Fine art specialist. Scholar, University College, Oxford, 1846–51; fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, 1851–85. Son of CD’s sister, Marianne Parker. Sources Alum. Oxon.' [Epsilon.ac.uk] Jan 2 at 15:33
  • 1
    Edwin, I don't understand your comment. The text I quoted wasn't about Henry Parker. It was a separate example which suggests it could include anyone who was part of the academic in-crowd at the time.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 3 at 13:35

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