I have spent hours telling potential applicants that Oxford is not that odd. Reassuring them that although we do have to work harder than at other universities, student life here is not that different to anywhere else. Forget ‘Brideshead Revisited’: we are a perfectly normal set of people.
But, let’s be honest, there are quite a few things that you get at Oxford which you just won’t find anywhere else. And although the thought of such things unnerved me a bit before coming up, I have to admit that now I’m here, I quite like some of the quirky traditions we have. Public School-like it may be, but ‘sconcing’ is one of them.
Sconcing, as it is understood by the students who practice it today, does not follow exactly the same procedures as it used to. It can be traced back to at least as early as 1617 when the word ‘sconce’ meant a fine or penalty. A person would be ‘sconced’ at a formal dinner if they broke table etiquette – for example by talking about women, religion, politics or work; by referring to the portraits hung in the hall; or by pronouncing the Latin grace wrong. All very serious stuff. The tradition then evolved from being a monetary fine to the penalty of having to drink a tankard of ale which the sconced student could share with his fellows, thus making amends to those who suffered his breach of etiquette. Only the master or senior scholar at the table was able to impose a ‘sconce’: if other people at the table felt that a sconce was necessary, they had to make their request to their senior in Latin or Ancient Greek.
Nowadays sconcing is practiced in different ways by different colleges, and the variations are quite revealing. The standard format goes something like this: At a formal dinner someone will stand up and say “I sconce anyone who… (insert amusing/offensive/salacious comment here)”. A particular favourite of mine was the person sconced for falling over while thinking about prime numbers. The people or person who fits that description then has to stand up, and has to down his or her drink
In most colleges sconcing is mainly practiced by rowers, which perhaps tells you about the love of tradition in boat clubs. However, subject societies and other sports societies do it too. In Hertford the Tanner Society (for physicists) and the Music Society are known to be keen sconcers, although I’m told by a Hertford physicist that sconcing only happens after dinner, not during it, because the two don’t go well concurrently. Civilised sconcers indeed. The fact that we’re still eating dinner has never stopped anyone I know.
In Balliol ‘revenge sconcing’ is frowned upon – for example sconcing people who row on bow side cannot be countered with a sconce against those who row on stroke side. Balliolites demand ingenuity in their sconces. An ‘incorrect sconce’, i.e. a sconce description which doesn’t fit anyone present, is met with the cry of SHOE! This then results in the abashed would-be-sconcer having to remove their footwear, pour their drink into it, and down it from there. Pretty gross. This doesn’t happen in all colleges that sconce though. A St Hughs student told me that they’d seen it on a crew date but had wisely avoided adopting it. Not so in Oriel. Apparently it has to be the president of the boat club’s shoe which is used and because of its popularity he has particular shoes for the purpose, so that the others don’t get ruined. Presumably this is a remnant of the old tradition when only the master or senior scholar could impose a sconce. Clearly Oriel is more traditional than most.
At St John’s sconcing seems to be less popular now, but until recently it was traditional for rowers to ask for permission from the president of the boat club to sconce people, and to do this in Latin. They have giant solid silver flagons which are worth about £16,000 each that they put out at some formal dinners. It is suspected that these might be old “sconce pots” which are mentioned in early accounts of sconcing.
Sconcing isn’t something done in all colleges though and its not done anywhere in Cambridge. Wadhamites for example, are clearly too cool for any of this sconcing lark. As one Wadham third year put it “it sounds like a slightly uprated, posher, boatier version of ‘I have never’”. He perhaps has a point. Sconcing is daft, posh and ultimately very Oxford. It can get offensive if done by certain people, but I think generally it is quite good fun and pretty harmless.