The informant, a 22-year-old college student, is a member of a PanHellenic sorority. The informant is my sister, and while chatting at home over spring break I asked her if she would be willing to tell me any of the rituals that were performed at her sorority events. She refused to tell on the grounds that they are all highly confidential and she has been sworn to secrecy. After a moment of silence, she said that she would be willing to describe a secret tradition of her ex-boyfriend’s fraternity, because she felt no obligation to keep it secret for him any longer.
“He’s in SAE, and they have this saying that all of the brothers constantly use in secret. It’s ‘Phi Alpha,’ and it means ‘Brighter from Obscurity.’ Usually they just say it means ‘Under the Sun’ because that’s easier to understand. It has something to do with being close to God. Members of the fraternity say it to one another under their breath as a greeting or when saying goodbye. Sometimes they also say it in place of ‘I’m serious’ or ‘this is actually true.’ Like, if one guy is telling a story and his brothers don’t believe him, he’ll say ‘Phi alpha’ so that they do. Only brothers are supposed to know what it is, I was just around so much that they accidentally said it in front of me and [my ex-boyfriend] told me what it means.”
This Greek phrase intended to be shared among fraternity members in secret serves to place emphasis on the deep-rooted connection that is meant to be formed between two men as a result of their shared Greek affiliation. I asked the informant whether pledges—new members of the fraternity who had not yet been initiated—knew of the phrase and she said that they don’t. Therefore, acquiring knowledge of what the phrase is, when to use it, and what it means is a part of one’s initiation into the fraternity. It is a special privilege granted only to those who have endured several months of probationary membership, and serves as a way of asserting one’s status within the fraternity. I asked the informant what the significance of being close to God is for the members, and she replied that there really was none. The fraternity has no religious affiliation, but rather the idea of being close to God serves more as a way of encouraging members of the fraternity to take responsibility for their actions, by implying that some greater power is watching over them and ensuring that they represent the fraternity appropriately. I have always heard that a plethora of secret handshakes, rituals, and traditions exist within Greek organizations, and the depth of meaning associated with the simple saying “Phi Alpha” makes me wonder just how intricate many of these other forms of folklore are that I am unaware of.