A to Z: The Cambridge alphabet

I.L.Y.S.M. C.A.M.


More than most universities, Cambridge has a mythos. A mystique. Newspapers run articles with titles like “Cambridge students tell all” and “What Cambridge University is really like.” People imagine a Harry Potter-esque fantasia of gowns, quill-written essays, and Victorian children in top hats. They don’t imagine the truth – rolling up to 9ams in pyjamas, burying your face in cheap Sainsbury’s wine, and all the other hallmarks of the real Cambridge experience.

So – here’s an alphabet of Cambridge, composed of 26 things that mark you out as a true student of Cambridge. Or not. Maybe I’m wrong.

A is for Anxious

Don’t panic!

Maybe you’re the “Did I read enough books for my essay?” type. Maybe you’re the “do I really look good in gowns?” type. Maybe you’re the type who’s panicking in a secluded corner of the library at 1 am on a Saturday because your supervisor just languidly emailed you another 70 books to read in the next 48 seconds.

Cambridge is a high-pressure environment, and there’s no doubt everyone at some point has wondered whether they’re enough for it or whether they’re doing it right. The only source of consolation is the (sad?) fact that you’re not alone. Google ‘Cambridge impostor syndrome’ if you dare – your computer will never recover from it.

I’ll probably write an article with advice later, but right now I’m too busy getting anxious over an unfinished essay.

B is for Bicycles

I actually took this very a e s t h e t i c photo when I was learning how to Photoshop. Needless to say, most bikes in Cambridge are not stationary for long. (Image Credits: Ted Bruce)

Nothing screams “Cambridge” more than bicycles. Boasting about your achievements was a close second, admittedly, but let’s not be cynical.

When you’re walking, it’s hell on Earth. As a rare Natsci on a Mainsburys run almost knocks you over, you scream, “Can’t these a***holes slow down?”

But then you get on your bike. Pedestrians transform into ugly obstacles, their gnomelike faces looking at you hatefully as they force you to slow down and weave between them. “F*cks sake, why can’t they get out of the way?”

Even then, when you’re away from Cambridge, it’s amazing how much you miss the sound of bike bells ringing or the feeling of the wind blowing through your hair as you ride far away from the lecture you’re skipping.

C is for College Family

These are (apparently) some of Freud’s ideas. College Families are even more complicated. (Image Credits: Thomas Steiner via Creative Commons)

The college family, I’ve always felt, must have been invented as some kind of bizarre Freudian mind experiment to study how students would recreate their own family dynamics away from home. I tried explaining what a college wedding is to my non-Cam friends.

“You mean, this is something you do when you’re drunk?”

“No.. I mean, yes obviously, but everyone has to do it. And you stay married when you sober up”

“Cambridge is so weird, man.”

Ah, but they’re wonderful. I’ve seen great friendships develop out of college families. I’ve also seen a college dad sleep with his college wife, sister and daughter in quick succession.

But, to be fair to him, he was studying law.

D is for DoS

Enough said (Image Credits: Screenshot via Camfess)

DoSs are enigmatic creatures. Even the acronym sounds like a codeword, the trigger for a nuclear bomb.

The DoS holds your Cambridge experience – and future –  in the palm of their hand.

They range from scary (intellectual snobbishness, sneering remarks) to soothing (pyjamas allowed, hot tea on offer). Sometimes they change within seconds from one mode to the other. Be on your alert around your DoS. They can be wild animals.

E is for Exam

There’s probably a valid critique to be made somewhere of our education system’s flawed insistence on exams, but I’m too lazy to make it. As a humble first year, I haven’t taken any real exams yet. My strategy (and everyone else’s that I know) is to ignore them.

Ignore the exams, and I’m sure they’ll disappear.

F is for Formals

The best dessert I ever had at a formal. Formals (and meals in general) only exist so we can have dessert. (Image Credits: Ted Bruce)

Formals are a thinly-veiled attempt to justify the cost of a Cambridge degree.

Maybe you go along to your formal with your friends, enjoying the almost restaurant-quality food, experiencing the sensation of twirling in a gown. Maybe wine’s provided, or you just sneak some in yourself. Maybe the price is reasonable, maybe not.

Maybe you’re like me, and spend your formal in Trinity’s elaborate hall, with a portrait of Henry VIII staring down upon the students like the doll from Squid Game, trying to figure out if your crush is gay by staring at the back of his head.

But, either way, as the lights dim and the food comes out, you’ll be like, “Man, I really am at Cambridge.”

G is for Gown

Here are our lovely Cambridge students looking stunning in their gowns. (Image Credits: Izzy Porter)

I’ve mentioned gowns several times so far. That’s because I think they’re fabulous.

Wearing a gown is like experiencing an instant Yassification. Suddenly you aren’t just a student studying maths on his way to get some food. You are a Junior Scholar, reading mathematics, currently travelling to hall for a very important dining function.

H is for Harry Potter

Just imagine these cosplayers are the real cast, mmmkay? (Image Credits: 蔡沅珅 via Creative Commons)

The ghost of Harry Potter lingers over Cambridge.

“Oh my god, Cambridge! That’s just like Harry Potter!” people say. Access officers bemoan how it discourages underprivileged students from applying. Students in gowns caption their Instagram posts “#harrypottervibes.”

Just remind all these people that Harry Potter was filmed in Oxford.

I is for Interview

We’ve all overheard strange stories. I myself know of interviewers walking out of cupboards and students setting fire to office supplies.

The Cambridge interview was a thing of mystery, discussed at unendurable length in the media and online (not to mention a cottage industry for obscure “consultants”). Difficult though the interview is for loads of people – myself included – let’s be real, it’s not anywhere near as bad as the epic Hunger Games trial that the media paints it as.

And now they’re online. It’s hard to maintain the mystique of interviews when the interviewer leans in so close to the camera that you can see up their nose.

J is for Jesus Toasties

A Jesus Toastie or, as the Americans call it, Grilled Cheesus (Image Credits: Screenshot via Facebook and Megbirch via Creative Commons)

Not a part of the general Cambridge experience, but worth sharing nonetheless.

The Trinity College Christian Union has been offering a “Text-a-toastie” service. We text them, they make and deliver a toastie, and then we discuss Christ – a fair exchange. We’ve come a long way from the inquisition, folks.

K is for Kings College Chapel

We’ve all seen it. We’ve all been there. It really is gorgeous. Perpendicular Gothic. Constructed 1515. That’s what Wikipedia says.

An icon of Cambridge. In the header of this article. Every tourist that visits Cambridge goes there, pilgrims to the Instagram shrine of Kings College Chapel.

It gets so much fame that one could almost call it overrated. But we can’t. Because it’s wonderful. Much like Taylor Swift.

L is for Lust

It starts with your college family, but it shouldn’t. It continues with that stranger you saw in the JCR or in passing in Mash. It ends with you crying in the bathtub as the crush in question does something unspeakably unattractive, making you seriously question your judgement even as you end up fancying them even more.

Lust is always overwhelming. At Cambridge, Lust is very special. There’s something about the architecture, the punts, that makes Lust almost seem like romance.

M is for Mathmos

Mathmos are the backbone of Cambridge. They’re truly frighteningly intelligent – at least from my Humanities viewpoint.

They make it even worse by being so nice you can’t dislike them. If only they could be a little more stupid sometimes to make the rest of us feel better.

N is for Nights Out

Nottingham (Image Credits: kirstiecoolin via Pixabay)

Nights Out in Cambridge are really fun.

N also stands for Nottingham Tab, where we stole this article idea from.

O is for OhmygodI’msof*cked

OhmygodI’msof*cked is that feeling that washes over you, as you sweep Maltesers into your trolly in the sweets aisle of Mainsburys and remember some deadline you’ve missed or Crushbridge you didn’t receive.

The feeling passes when you end up mainlining those Maltesers.

P is for Procrastination

I’ll write about this one later.

Q is for Queers

An average Glitterbomb, with River Medway making a valiant effort to sing Hannah Montana (Image Credits: Ted Bruce)

Some of us are hiding in plain sight. Some of us are not hiding at all. Some of us are yelling “Yasssss” at Glitterbomb.

R is for Revs

One night when I was at Revs, they kept playing Bruno Mars. Another night, it was the Baha Men.

S is for Societies

Crochet Daleks, courtesy of DW soc, whose emails are buried somewhere deep. (Image Credits: Ted Bruce)

You’re a fresher. You sign up to 500 societies. 500 emails arrive in your inbox. By the time you’ve finished reading them, you’ve graduated.

T is for Tab

The Tab is the best thing to ever happen to me. My Cambridge life was empty and devoid of purpose before. Now it’s empty, devoid of purpose, and I’m writing clickbait for The Tab.

U is for Union

(Screenshot via Camfess)

£200 is worth every penny, so I’m told – not that I’m actually a member.

But there’s no doubt the Union brings some sparkle to Cambridge. There’s something about the parade of celebrities and the snaking, three-hour queues of people that bring to mind a Hollywood premiere. Stephen Fry, Jordan Peterson, Gemma Collins… the list goes on and on. Who next?

V is for Vinyl/Van of Life

Torn between Vinyl and Van of Life for this entry.

The gay part of me says Vinyl. I need to see other queers jumping around to Future Nostalgia.

The junk food addict part says Van of Life. I need grease in my veins at 3am.

W is for Why?

Why? The oldest question in the universe.

Why am I writing this? Why are the entries getting shorter as we go on? Why has this article stopped being a Cambridge alphabet and started being my life story?

X is for Xerophilous

Xerophilous means “flourishing in a very dry environment.”

It must refer to those students who, mid-way through a stupefyingly boring lecture, are still scribbling notes in beautiful cursive.

Y is for Yearnings

Combining the frightening work ethics of vloggers and mathmos (Image credits: author’s own screenshot via Youtube)

Yearnings. Yearnings for a First. Yearnings for an internship. Yearnings to be one of those Cambridge vloggers capable of working 48 hours a day.

Z is for Zombification

Zombification. A process that sets in after term ends, when your faculties have been hollowed out and replaced with a mix of exhilaration and exhaustion. You don’t know if you can take any more, but you really want to.

And that’s Cambridge.

Featured image credits: Ted Bruce

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