May 31, 2021

Words of the Month - From Sophomoric to Sophisticated

         In this season of graduations, students in high schools and colleges throughout the United States are gaining new names, from freshmen to sophomores, sophomores to juniors, juniors to seniors…  But where do these names come from?  Freshman is pretty straightforward: around the 1550’s the word freshman meant a new or inexperienced man in any field, and by the 1590s was being applied specifically to students in their first year of university.  Freshwoman is first seen in English in the 1620s, and nowadays there are also variants freshperson, frosh, and fresher.
        Junior and senior are also relatively easy to explain.  They are shortened forms of junior sophister and senior sophister, in which sophister was the Latin (from Greek) for “a wise or learned man, or a master of his craft.”  Sophister was dropped from the titles used for upperclassmen when the terms were transferred from Cambridge and Oxford to US universities, and the word, along with its twin sophist, has gained the definition “a specious or fallacious reasoner,” which does not reflect well on university students.
        That leaves sophomore, which is the knottier term.  It entered English more than a century later than the other three (after all, university programs were only three years and thus didn’t need a fourth term) and some attribute it to a derivation from sophumer, meaning “arguer.”  This was another variant of the Greek sophistēs root that gave us the junior and senior sophisters.  But many also derive the word from a combination of sophos and mōros, both “wise” and “foolish” (as in moron).  So the question is, was the word deliberately coined of these two parts to mean “wise fool,” or was the “wise fool” interpretation a folk etymology devised later?  And how much later might it have struck people with its appropriateness?  Some claim that the term existed in ancient Greek, others that it was invented out of Greek roots by those English university men.
        Of course the adjectival form, sophomoric, does not reflect so well on second-year students, implying immaturity and opinionated ignorance.  We gained that version around 1806.  However, that Greek root about wisdom gives us some other words, as well, such as philosopher (early 14th century), who is a “lover of wisdom.”  This word gained its positive connotation when the word sophist began to seem a bit conceited, and slipped toward its negative meaning.  We also have sophistication, which began in English in the early 15th century as “the use of sophistry; fallacious argument; adulteration,” but which moved in the opposite direction as sophist, reaching the positive sense of “worldly wisdom, refinement” by 1850.
        Not until the early 20th century did the four words for university students come to be applied to the four years of high school in the US.  Meanwhile, they have pretty well disappeared from British English.
        So, if you are a high school or college student, don’t forget to aim for the love of knowledge without being a moron or sophist.  And if you are graduating this year from high school senior to college freshmen, or from college senior to sophisticated adult, congratulations, and be wise!

[Pictures: Doctor in Theologia, copper engraving by C. Grignion after Huddesford, 1790 (Image from Sanders of Oxford);

Gentleman commoner and nobleman undress gowns, Student in Civil Law, Oxford, engravings by J.S. Agar after T. Ewins, 1814 (Image from International Museum of the Student);

Alma Mater, engraving by William Hogarth, c 1860 (Image from Mental Floss);

Female Graduate, engraving by Harold Copping, 1891 (Image from International Museum of the Student).]


Nilanjana Bose said...

How fascinating! In my part of the world the only term we used at uni was fresher, the rest were seniors as a whole, or referred to as second/third/final year etc.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I think fresher is a good word. We should use it here!