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Hello,

This week’s word is wrangler, thanks to this quotation I stumbled upon in “The Glass Shore” an anthology of short fiction by Northern Irish female writers – “The yokel was a wrangler of his year.” The character saying this was defending a middle class man from a snobbish member of the gentry but I must admit, I had only heard of a wrangler as a type of jeans or an animal handler in movie-speak, so what was she talking about?

Cambridge University in England is the source of the term. A wrangler there is a student who gains first class honours (the top mark) in the third year of their undergraduate mathematics degree. The highest ranking student within that category is the Senior Wrangler and is unofficially informed of this by a hat-tip when their name is read out. The rest are informed privately.

As the difficulty of the exams were universally acknowledged, being the senior wrangler became a highly sought-after honour and was used as short-hand for “very intelligent”. Some of the wranglers went on to high career success (for example Joan Clarke who helped crack the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park) while others missed the title but achieved excellence anyhow (e.g. Bertrand Russell). Wrangler is used in this way only at Cambridge University. Seek them at Oxford and you shall fail.

Unseen University Staff by Paul Kidby

Only one other university features a Senior Wrangler and that’s Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Unseen University in his Discworld books where the Senior Wrangler is a member of the faculty (and the football team) who is described as “a philosopher who looks like a horse”. As usual, Pratchett’s huge knowledge of the world, reminds us of this little known academic term and appropriately links it to animals as the more usual usage for wrangler is for an animal handler either on farms, ranches, or movie sets. It’s worth noting that Pratchett left school at 17 and although he was awarded ten honourary degrees, he didn’t receive one from Cambridge. I like to think he was the real Chancellor of the Unseen Uni.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling (or word wrangling),

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’m running a contest on my twitter account (@Wordfoolery) to give away a 3 month bronze membership of Channillo.com. It enables new members of Chanillo to read up to ten series on the site, including mine, if you wish. First one out of the hat wins. Deadline midnight 31st October 2017.

Note: Discworld and Unseen University are trademarks

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