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Oxbridge (andCamford): an etymological history by William Ham Bevan

Images © Smith/Corbis/Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge/ The Stapleton Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library/National Railway Museum/ Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images/Martin Parr (Magnum)

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T I S A W O R D B E L O V E D of journalists, coopted by crammers and essay mills, swatted around mercilessly by politicians and for the most part loathed by those to whom it refers. For a place that has no earthly existence, “Oxbridge” has quite a hold on the public imagination; and Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor is typical of many members of the two universities in his exasperation at the word’s popularity. “We work closely together on many things, but we are not one institution,” says Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz. “Oxford and Cambridge have distinctive contributions to make, and fusing them in one term invariably masks the differences – and adds a wash of unnecessary negativity.” What’s more, Oxbridge seldom means just “Oxford and/or Cambridge”. Few other words lug around so much semantic baggage. Recently, the term speaks most loudly of privilege (and indeed, one newspaper website has an entire section on “Oxbridge and elitism”). But unlike its American analogue, the Ivy League – which is a real athletic conference of eight north-eastern universities –