Word History

Learned Fools: On Names for Students

Where did we get 'freshman' and 'sophomore'?


Sometimes names are just names and titles are just titles. They can seem arbitrary: what is it about duke makes it intrinsically superior to baron? Why is an admiral (which derives from the Arabic word meaning “commander”) higher in rank than a commander in the navy? The answers aren't necessarily contained in the words themselves.

It can therefore be satisfying to find words that seem to follow logic in describing a hierarchy, like the names used to designate people studying at high schools or colleges.

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Wise fool in repose.

Since the goal of education has always been wisdom, and much of the reading and writing at Cambridge and Oxford was in Greek and Latin, it’s not surprising that a word with classical roots was used to designate students at the oldest universities in England: sophister. Sophister was used as a synonym of philosopher, but also frequently referred to young and not-yet-wise people whose reasoning was immature. In the 16th century it was often modified with unflattering terms:

frivolous

perverse

prattling

trifling

wicked

unskillful

cunning

shallow

Because the word seems to have been used to name those equipped with either wisdom or the lack thereof, it was an apt designation for those in the process of intellectual growth and change: undergraduates. Indeed, sophister was also used to designate someone who used fallacious reasoning; in this sense they were sometimes called sophists and the exercise of deceptive reasoning became known as sophistry. For a group of words that comes from the Greek sophistēs, meaning “wise man” or “expert,” these terms collectively express the idea of a very imperfect wisdom.

A listing of what students were called in early modern England is provided in Randle Holme’s 1688 An Academy of Armory, an authoritative guide to 17th-century society. The detailed treatise remarks on everything from the meanings of colors in coats of arms to how much heralds should be paid at ceremonies to the appropriate robes of the clergy. Under the heading “The several degrees of persons in the University Colledges,” Holme lists the sophisters (students were also known as commoners) in order:

Commoners, are such as are at the University Commons, which till they come to some Degree or Preferment there, are distinguished according to their time of being there; as 1. Fresh Men. 2. Sophy Moores. 3. Junior Soph, or Sophester. And lastly Senior Soph.

He starts with freshman, a word that had been used already for decades to mean “first-year student”:

Brother Begger (quoth he) because thou art yet but a mere freshman in our Colledge, i charge thee to hang thine eares to my lips, and to learne the orders of our house.
— Thomas Dekker, The belman of London, 1608

Freshman is a compound word that goes back to the 15th century in English. It was initially used to refer to new members of a religious order, a near-synonym of novice and proselyte. Here’s how it was used in John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English bilingual dictionary:

novitio, a yong novice, a freshman

It’s clear from the same bilingual dictionary that freshman was also used as an insulting word for a newbie (like sophister, it was a word that had an unflattering meaning):

menchione, a foole, a sot, a gull, a coxecombe, a patch, a noddie, a freshman

Second-year students were known as sophy moores (or sophomores), another compound word that combined the wisdom of sophistēs with the Greek word mōros, meaning “foolish.” (Mōros is also the etymon of moron). A sophomore, therefore, is a “wise fool,” a double meaning that corresponds perfectly with the double meanings of both sophister and freshman.

I wonder not now, you tell us you were no Academick, if you had, I should have concluded you at the highest Pitch, to have been but a Sopho-moore, or at least one of the ruder sort of youth, whom Aristotle himselfe excludes from his Ethick Lecture.
— Robert Lilburne, Lillies Ape Whipt by Philastrogus, 1652

How much the Universitie of Oxford are engaged to this their Valiant, Learned Defendant, we leave themselves to Judge: how much he hath bettered the cause under contest let sober men Judge: with what ingenuity, candor and clearness he hath taken up and confuted Mr. Croftons Arguments, let any Sophomore, yea Fresh-man or ordinary Logician Judge.
— Hugh Griffith, Mr. Crofton's Case Soberly Considered, 1661

The adjective sophomoric, meaning “lacking in maturity, taste, or judgment,” derives from the wise-and-foolish term for a student for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Here’s an early use:

We see now the master who chained down our understandings, or opened a well defined and luminous path, through fastness, wilds and marshes—his sceptre shivering in his hand, and himself, valiantly stalking in sophomoric fashion.
The Balance (Albany, NY), 25 Oct. 1808

For the third-year students, junior sophister (or junior soph) was used:

Let, Sir, Junior Sophs judge, whether you have not disputed like the Master of much Reason.
— R. S., A Word to Dr. Womocke, 1663

Nay, how would each junior sophister (lately dismiss't from school) give him cause to sneak, beg pardon, and repent, in the strength of hesiod and homer?
— Thomas Rogers, The common-wealths-man unmasqu'd, 1694

Finally, the fourth-year students were called senior sophisters:

But this universitie never lived to commence bachelor of art, senior sophister was all the standing it atained unto.
— Thomas Fuller, The church-history of Britain, 1655

A senior sophister would be laugh'd at for such Logick: and yet this is all you say in that sentence you erect for a trophy, to convince me of the truth of Falshood.
—John Locke, A Third Letter for Toleration, 1692

The Oxford English Dictionary records that sophister was used at Harvard by 1650; American universities would unsurprisingly follow the English model for naming students according to their year of study, but would ultimately drop sophister or soph, retaining junior and senior as designations for upperclassmen. Sometimes old ways are preserved more faithfully, linguistically and otherwise, by colonies than by the country of origin of traditions, and so it is with these terms: freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior are today used in North America, but no longer in England. The term fresher is used for those just beginning their studies, but otherwise the British use terms that are increasingly adopted in the United States as well: first year, second year, and final year. First year has the advantage of being ungendered, but it’s also true that the legacy of disparaging double meanings of all the terms is removed by these new names.

Intriguingly, sophomore, the last word that remains in contemporary use to name academic years based upon the Greek word for wisdom, sophistēs, has an evil twin in English: morosoph, an inverted combination of root words that clearly reminds us of the one thing we must avoid becoming as a result of education: “a learned fool.”



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