Head to any college campus or high school and it won’t be long before you start hearing references to freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. In all likelihood, these terms are familiar. You probably even already know what year in school each represents. But have you ever wondered about the origin of these titles? Like, why are first year students called freshmen, and second year students called sophomores? Why isn’t a freshman known as a junior since they are the youngest students in the group?
Read on to find out exactly why these terms are used and where they came from.
The word freshman, or fresh-man, dates back to at least the 1550s, and in the past was used to describe a “newcomer or novice.” The term is a compound of fresh (meaning inexperienced) and man. Its use to denote a first-year student dates back to the 16th century at Cambridge University. While all students regardless of age were called sophisters at that time, the term fresh-man came to be used to describe those in their first year of study. Second year students were called junior sophists, and third year students were called senior sophists (Cambridge was a three-year university in those days).
You probably noticed that Cambridge’s past term for students, sophisters, is very similar to the word sophomore. That is because both take from the Greek word, sophos, which means “wise”.
Sophomore would come to describe second-year students in the late 1600s, though there is some debate on its actual origins.
One folk etymology is that sophomore comes from a combination of the Greek words sophos (wise) and mōros (foolish or dull). So in essence, a sophomore is a wise fool. Another common etymology is that the word derives from the English word sophumer, which is a variation of the Greek sophism meaning “clever device.”
While words like freshman and sophomore seem almost uniquely tied to education, the term junior is a much more common part of everyday language. We use junior to refer to someone who is less advanced in age.
While the word itself dates back to the end of the 13th century, its use to describe a third-year student seems to also have origins at Cambridge. Recall that students who were in their second-to-last year were called junior sophists. Over time, the “sophists” part would be dropped, and by the mid-18th century third-year students were commonly called juniors.
The story of senior as it applies to education is very similar to that of junior. The word senior comes from a Latin adjective used to describe an older person or one of authority. It has been used since at least the mid-14th century.
Students in their final year at Cambridge had been called senior sophists, and much like with juniors, the sophists part would get dropped over time. Senior eventually came to be used to describe an “advanced student”, but by the 18th century had changed to describe a fourth-year student specifically.
Why Are First Year Students Called Freshmen?
Freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior all have some origins in Cambridge University, so it makes sense that it would be an alumnus who was responsible for helping popularize the terms elsewhere.
John Harvard, the same guy that founded Harvard University, had been a graduate of Cambridge, and he brought the various terms with him to the American Colonies. By the early 20th century, not only had the words become common across college campuses, but many high schools began to apply the terms to their students. Today, it wouldn’t feel like high school without these familiar class distinctions.
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