One of our returning students, the inestimable Moritz, recently took an A in his Cambridge Proficiency in English examination (CPE to you and me) – and an 8.5 in his IELTS, with a 9 in the listening.

That is pretty impressive. The CPE is a difficult exam. When it was first set, in 1913 – the first of the Cambridge suite of exams – it lasted 12 hours and had only three entrants, all of whom failed. Unsurprising, in fact, since there were questions such as this:

Explain fully and comment on the following passages, stating the connexions in which they occur and any difficulties of reading, phraseology or allusion: “Wert thou the Hector, That was the whip of your bragg’d progency, Thou should’st not ‘scrape me here.”

So, a tough exam. But its name perhaps suggests otherwise. Proficiency seems to be some degree short of expertise, or mastery. It is not unlike a glorified competence – at the University of Cambridge, students from various subjects used to be invited (and perhaps still are) to take an examination equivalent to the language knowledge of a second year undergraduate studying that language, and if you passed the exam you were awarded a CCK – a Certificate of Competent Knowledge, which always struck me as a rather mealy reward, and hardly worth the bother.

Proficiency has a similar ring, associated in my mind with the cycling proficiency test which small children are encouraged to pass when they first learn to ride a bike. If they are proficient, then what am I? Similarly with English. But while mere proficiency may seem an underwhelming accolade, it is anything but. Moritz has essentially nowhere to go now, unless he qualifies as a barrister and takes to publishing poetry in English in his spare time.