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I think much has been clarified by the many interesting comments this post has received. In Edit 5 below, I've tried to summarize what I think I've learned and what questions are still outstanding.

I'm curious about the use of the word uni for "university". Before going any further, let me say that I'm a Canadian who lives in Canada, I'm about 50, and I don't mix very much with twenty-somethings.

A British friend about 40, but now living in Canada, reports that this word was not used much when she was in university in England. She says it sounds to her like something Australians might say. (Correction: See Edit 2 below.)

Personally, I've never heard anybody say "uni" in real life, but I see it used quite a lot on the internet, even in contexts that would indicate that the writer is a student in Canada or the U.S. However, I don't know if these are foreign students or not.

So my question is:

What age groups, if any, use uni in Australia/the U.K./Canada/the U.S.?

My suspicion is that it will be people under 30 in the U.K., and even younger in North America, or perhaps not at all in North America and the people I've seen using it online aren't actually from here.

Edit 1. This Google ngram shows that "went to uni" had a very moderate degree of use in print between 1980 and 2000, but has really taken off since 2000. I don't trust Google to distinguish reliably between British and American English, even though the option exists, but it seems fair to believe this has been the overall trend in English.

Edit 2. After checking again with my British friend, she says she did hear it occasionally, but its use by Britons struck her as being highly marked as middle- to upper-class usage. (She's from the North but attended a top-tier university in the South.)

Edit 3. Evidence in the form of a Reddit post from 2012 that at least one other person has noticed this:

I [...] hate it when Americans on Reddit refer to college or university as "uni." It's so gross; no one in America actually says this.

Edit 4. A further data point. This Google Ngram shows the changes over time in the frequencies of at uni and at university (in print). Here is the former expressed as a percentage of the latter.

1970 0.5%

1975 0.6%

1980 0.6%

1985 0.6%

1990 0.6%

1995 0.9%

2000 1.3%

2005 2.4%

2010 5.4%

2015 7.3%

When you look at the actual results in Google Books, almost all the results prior to 1990 seem to be things like universal or uniform divided at the end of a line, so the true frequency in print may have been close to zero at that time. Then there was an uptick in the 1990s that became a flood in the 2000s and especially the 2010s. Of course, just because a word was infrequent in print doesn't necessarily imply that it wasn't used in speech. But in the period 1995-2000, of the first ten genuine occurrences I found in Google Books, all ten were Australian.

None of this sheds any light on whether uni has gained any currency among young Canadians or Americans.

Edit 5. Here's what I think I've learned from the comments and further research, and what I still don't know and would like to see in an answer.

Australia: The word uni has been well-established as an informal term for a very long time, probably since the 1950s at least. By the 1990s, uni was even used in print in Australia when it still wasn't in the U.K.

U.K.: It seems uni was used in speech by some as early as the 1980s, but this wasn't universal. As late as the mid-2000s, its use was still limited by some combination of region and social class. Since then, however, has begun to appear regularly in print, has become ubiquitous on TV, and has been adopted by older individuals who might not have used it in the past.

For these reasons, it seems less appropriate to focus on who the holdouts are today, and more productive to ask about the process by which the term became popularized in the U.K. Neighbours didn't hit the airwaves in Britain until late 1986, and yet one commenter already attended uni in the mid-1980s. Is it possible then that Australian television shows like Neighbours and Home and Away merely accelerated a process that was already underway?

Canada: Wiktionary has claimed since 2018 that uni is used in Canada. My Canadian Oxford Dictionary (the last edition from 2004) labels it Brit, which is exactly what I would have thought, of course, as I've never actually heard a Canadian say this word. Have things really changed since then? How widely used is uni and by whom?

I believe there are relatively few recent examples of British terms entering Canadian English, particularly if they didn't enter American English simultaneously. (At the moment, I can only think of topping up a benefit.) How might a British term have spread to Canada?

U.S.: Commenters have pointed out that, unlike in Canada and elsewhere, Americans say "in college" and rarely "in university" or "at university," so it would seem there's little room for a word like uni.

Yet spending time online, I'm sure I've seen a number of cases of students at U.S. universities saying they're in uni, which never fails to shock me, and if I have time I'll try to collect examples. If these are actually Americans, then I'm inclined to believe that this is an online-only phenomenon.

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  • 3
    As a UK resident who went to uni in the mid 1980s, we definitely called it uni then. Perhaps the term had died out by the time your British friend attended a university? Dec 14, 2023 at 22:53
  • 2
    I'm down here in Australia, and "uni" is very common and has been for many decades. I went to uni in the 90s and my nephews and nieces are going to uni now. "University" is a bit too posh for Australians, except in formal speech. We also figure why use five syllables when you can just use two.
    – ralph.m
    Dec 15, 2023 at 0:29
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    I (UK) don't think I used it myself in the '70s (I used the writing abbreviation 'Univ'), but I worked at an institution which became a university in the '90s and learned to think of 'Uni' as a perfectly normal expression. Dec 15, 2023 at 9:12
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    No one in the States says "I went to uni" unless they are British influenced. In the States, we say "I went to college" even when it is a university as in an institution of higher learning.Ngrams is useless for this. "Where did you go to college"? I went to Georgetown University. [in fact, I did]
    – Lambie
    Dec 15, 2023 at 17:25
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    According to Dictionary.com it is mainly a British and Australian usage: dictionary.com/browse/uni-
    – user 66974
    Dec 15, 2023 at 21:52

3 Answers 3

1

Went to university in the UK in the early/mid 1980s and 'uni' was definitely a word we used, as in "What are you doing after uni?" meaning, when you have to find a job, or "She's not really considering uni" meaning she's thinking of not going to university. "Uni" wasn't used in place of "university" in a sentence like "What university are you attending?"

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  • Thanks for this answer! This is confirmation that the word was already in use among a subset of Britons years before Neighbours came on air. I take it that "Which uni are you going to?" would be unremarkable usage these days, in contrast to the situation back then. Is that correct?
    – Dave
    Dec 29, 2023 at 6:21
  • I think it would be seen as an unexceptional question. Everyone would know what it means nowadays. I recently heard "When I was in uni, I..."
    – Dred
    Jan 1 at 21:36
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I went to college in Liverpool in the 1970s, sharing a house with university students. No one called it ‘uni’ then. To mix it up a bit, I also worked on farms in Kent in the 1970s, working with a number of South Africans who talked about going to Varsity.

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  • Hi! Thanks for this answer. Would you perhaps you also remember something about when you began to hear the word used by others, or by whom?
    – Dave
    Dec 22, 2023 at 1:35
  • I think I was unaware of ‘uni’ until the late 1990s when my own daughters were planning to go to university. And when I asked people who went to university before the 1990s, they all said they never used ‘uni’ in those days. Dec 28, 2023 at 19:13
  • I went to uni in Glasgow, UK,in the 80s and it was common parlance then, as it is today.
    – user46359
    Jan 13 at 10:55
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"Uni" was commonly used used when I went to university in the 80s in the UK, and I didn't perceive it as being a class thing or at all influenced by Australian English.

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