Why do students at Oxford University wear carnations to exams?
March 22, 2007 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Why do students at Oxford University wear carnations to exams?

I learned today that Oxford students wear carnations of various colors to exams (thanks, Wikipedia), but I can't seem to find a reason why or an explanation of how the tradition started.
posted by geeky to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's just a fun tradition, and according to one friend I had whilst there it's a relatively recent one too. It's probably helped along by the fact we have to wear such awful stuff to exams.
posted by edd at 10:02 AM on March 22, 2007

God, sub fusc, I remember that. Uck.

I seem to remember my prof bought the carnation, but I could be mistaken.
posted by unSane at 10:14 AM on March 22, 2007

Explanations of these Oxford and Cambridge traditions are generally recondite.

Incidentally, Oxford students recently voted, by quite a large majority, to retain the traditional requirement to wear sub fusc for exams. Cambridge got rid of gowns in exams a while ago.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:15 AM on March 22, 2007

(recondite, adj. 1. Not easily understood; abstruse)
posted by smackfu at 10:25 AM on March 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

Since this thread is here, does someone want to tell us about the weirdo graduation ceremonies?
posted by biffa at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2007

I don't remember anyone wearing carnations to exams when I was there in the 1990s. I certainly didn't.
posted by paduasoy at 10:31 AM on March 22, 2007

As an Oxford student, I can tell you that the place is full of traditions that exist primarily for the sake of tradition. As I recall, you are to wear a white carnation (along with the rest of your sub fusc) on the first day of your exams, then pink ones for intermediate days, and a red one at the end.

For men, sub fusc is a black or gray business suit with a bow tie and your appropriate academic robe (example). When students start out at Oxford, they become members of the university through a ceremony called matriculation. A few of my photos from that ceremony are available here.

Matriculation happens in the Sheldonian Theatre, the first structure designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Exams, by contrast, take place in the Examination Schools located on the High Street, near University College.
posted by sindark at 10:33 AM on March 22, 2007

Ah, smackfu, I have always understood it to mean obscure and hard to find.

I gather from the OED that 'hard to find' is a nowadays a rare use, and the modern definitions emphasise the "obscure" and "removed from ordinary apprehension, understanding, or knowledge" meanings. Fair enough.

Biffa, what in particular did you want to know? The Cambridge site contains masses of information regarding graduation; I imagine Oxford has a similar set of pages.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:39 AM on March 22, 2007

Perhaps it should be noted that Oxford exams are a really big deal for undergraduates. You study a subject for three years, then have it all examined right at the end. How well you do on these exams determines a lot about future job and study prospects.

As such, it makes sense that both the university and students place a great deal of emphasis on them.
posted by sindark at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2007

Nitpick: matriculation is the event that the ceremony surrounds. Ever'body at college matriculates.
posted by deadfather at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2007

Aloysius: The stuff about grabbing a finger each would, I think, be interesting to anyone interested in the carnation tradition.
posted by biffa at 11:01 AM on March 22, 2007

Don't you love the way tradition sucks in the best and brightest and before long makes conformists of them all. Ah for the glory days of student protest.
posted by A189Nut at 11:21 AM on March 22, 2007

Christ, I remember the Oxford finals like it was yesterday. Six or seven days, two three-hour exams each day, examining an entire two years of work with NO points for coursework.

Your entire degree, right there.

At the end your drank a lot and threw up, burnt your sub fusc and your essays, and never gave any of it a second thought.

If I had known that nobody, and I mean nobody, except my mother, would give a flying fuck what degree I got afterwards, I would probably have dealt with the whole thing quite differently.
posted by unSane at 11:37 AM on March 22, 2007


I hope you got a first for all that anxiety. It seems to be more about how you answer questions than about what you know.
posted by sindark at 12:00 PM on March 22, 2007

My fiancee took her finals at Oxford in 2001 and she wore carnations. She says that she was told that originally students had only one white carnation which they would keep in red ink so that it became progressively more pink during the exams until it was completely red for the last one. However she says that she has no idea whether this is true or not. Oxford flower shops now sell the white, pink and red carnations in bunches of three and students buy them for each other.
posted by greycap at 12:11 PM on March 22, 2007

If there are MeFi readers seriously considering going to Oxford, I can give them some inside information.

Just send a message to: sindark@gmail.com

I don't know about all the areas of study, but I probably know someone in the area you are considering.
posted by sindark at 12:48 PM on March 22, 2007

Traditions are something no-one's complained about loudly enough. Except that this one isn't something to complain about: the pre-exam Covered Market carnation routine was a nice way to calm my nerves. I'd not heard the 'red ink' story, but it's a nice one that I hope is true.

(I've still got my Finals carnations, dried and in a little pot.)

My college (as edd will attest) also had its own in-house post-exam 'trashing' ceremony, including the tradition of trying to hit the quadrangle clock with a champagne (read: cheap perry) cork. More fun than dodging the bowler-hatted bulldogs on Merton Street.
posted by holgate at 1:45 PM on March 22, 2007

How disturbing. I'm left wondering who holgate is. Hello!

Anyway, I arrived in '98 and the carnation thing was in full swing. A friend of mine had a relative who was at another college in the 70s or 80s and never heard of it while they were there, so combined with paduasoy it would seem to be about 20 years old as a tradition.

Another story I heard, which I never got properly confirmed, is that the aforementioned matriculation is the final remnants of the original entrance exam, now reduced to sitting in a hall for a bit listening to someone rabbit on in Latin before going to the pub for lunch (the last bit not being a university requirement).
posted by edd at 2:43 PM on March 22, 2007

(figures out who holgate is - never knew you were here!)
posted by edd at 2:55 PM on March 22, 2007

During our matriculation ceremony, we found ourselves sitting around for more than twenty empty minutes. Some people passed the time rather irreverently. (low quality video from a digital camera)
posted by sindark at 10:43 PM on March 22, 2007

Response by poster: Six or seven days, two three-hour exams each day, examining an entire two years of work with NO points for coursework.

Wow, I had no idea. My (American) college exams were yearly for each class, so they weren't nearly such a big deal.

I'm sort of surprised that while everyone knows about the tradition, no one seems to know why it exists. The heavy emphasis on the importance of exams makes sense, but I'm still curious about why the tradition started, why those particular carnation colors are used, etc.
posted by geeky at 7:09 AM on March 23, 2007


Having looked through Wikipedia, the archives of the Oxford Student, and several websites for companies that sell carnations to Oxford students, nobody has anything to say about the origins of the tradition.

It is certainly well observed, among undergraduates at least.
posted by sindark at 7:26 AM on March 23, 2007

sindark:I hope you got a first for all that anxiety. It seems to be more about how you answer questions than about what you know.

I missed a first by one leading alpha (other Oxbridge dorks will understand this, no-one else). My downfall was the Middle English translation, which I couldn't be bothered to learn. I was unusual because I did a year of math before starting again in English lit/language, which was what my final degree was in.

One thing I am slightly proud of is that I only ever went to one English lecture: the first (obviously). After that I thought "fuck it, I can make this stuff up" which rather surprisingly turned out to be entirely true.

Apart from the Middle English.
posted by unSane at 7:19 PM on March 23, 2007

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