A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of "sophomore"?

December 26, 2001

Dear Straight Dope:

I consider myself one of the brighter millionths that make up the Teeming Millions. Although I am young, I am wise. Being a sophmore means I'm a wise fool, right?

Lots of wise fools have fallen for the false etymology you give, but it's a foolish fool indeed who doesn't even know how to spell the word. It's sophomore, with three Os. (Don't feel bad; I had to look it up to make sure).

Though the first part does come from the Greek word sophos ("wise"), there is no direct relation to the Greek word for "foolish" as is commonly believed. In truth, sophomore is a variation of sophist, a word that has a long and twisted history in itself.

Originally, a sophist (Greek sophistes) was a man who had achieved wisdom. The sophist Protagoras is said to have been the first professional teacher, charging only what his students thought he had earned. He, and many sophists who came after him, were serious thinkers but not on the level of, say, Socrates. Later, professional teachers in ancient Greece became generally known as sophists, but many of these were more pretenders to wisdom than truly wise. These guys were the original insufferable know-it-alls. The sort of plausible yet unsound arguments they were fond of using are called sophisms and the use of such arguments is called sophistry. Other ancient Greek thinkers, more interested in finding truth than winning arguments, were less comfortable claiming to have achieved wisdom. They called themselves philosophers ("lovers of wisdom").

Greek sophisma ("sophism") seems to have entered English two ways, first from the Old French sophime (or soffime), and later from that word's source, the Latin sophisma (or perhaps from a different Old French form, sophisme, which is also the modern French form.) So English had both sophume and sophism as synonyms, and also had the synonymous pair sophumer and sophister for what we would now call a "sophist." Do you see where I'm going with this yet?

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, debate and argument (as an educational exercise, not necessarily as a path to knowledge) was considered an important part of education at Cambridge University. A first-year student at Cambridge, who was not expected to engage in such arguments, was called a fresh-man, which originally meant a novice at any activity. Second- and third-year student were assigned points that they were expected to defend in debate, and clever new arguments were called sophisms. From this, the upperclassmen were called sophisters ("users of sophisms"). This group was later divided into junior sophisters (or junior sophs, second-year students) and senior sophisters (or senior sophs, third-year students). In the seventeenth century, the designation sophumer (essentially a synonym of sophister, as noted above) was inserted between freshman and junior soph. This does not appear to have been an extra year, but seems to have been one or more terms at the end of the first year or beginning of the second, or both. The bachelor's program at Cambridge has traditionally had just a three-year course of three terms per year (but some programs now require four years to earn a bachelor's degree there).

The sophister designations were also used at Oxford University for a time, but it didn't catch on to the same degree. They are no longer used at Cambridge either, but they survive at Trinity College, Dublin, which uses the four designations junior freshman, senior freshman, junior sophister, and senior sophister.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Cambridge designations were used at the first American college, Harvard. It may not be mere coincidence that the school's namesake and benefactor, John Harvard, was a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The system spread to other American schools from Harvard. Harvard's influence extended to other educational terminology. Alma mater (from the Latin for "foster mother") and alumnus (Latin for "foster son") originated there as well.

By 1726 sophumer had become sophomore in America, the modern spelling probably being influenced by the false etymology from Greek moros ("foolish"). The upperclassmen's "sophister" designation was gradually dropped, disappearing by about 1850. That leaves us with the familiar freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors we have today. High school students had to wait a bit longer. These designations weren't applied to them until about the turn of the twentieth century.

So you have your whole life to be a wise fool, but you only have one year to be a sophomore. For God's sake, don't waste it studying like I did.

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