Blame It on the Sophomores


Freshman orientation, Washington & Jefferson College, 1934: The sophomores inspect socks.
(Photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month in Lingua Franca, Anne Curzan considered the curious case of “freshman,” a word with perceptible gender bias that nevertheless has not been eradicated by efforts to promote gender-free “first year” in its place.

She notes that despite the “man” at the end, “freshman” to many students seems inclusive. The second syllable isn’t pronounced “man,” for example, and by that freshman logic doesn’t refer particularly to males. Also, the alternatives that have been proposed, “freshperson” or “frosh” or “freshie,” are ungainly or unappealing—which is why the only somewhat successful alternative is “first year.” But “first year,” her students argue, doesn’t align with “sophomore,” “junior,” and “senior.” To which she counters that “freshman” doesn’t either.

All logical enough, on both sides, which is why both variants have wide support at our colleges and schools. But I think the best explanation for the ineradicability of “freshman” is the sophomores.

Not one in a hundred students, I’m sure, has any idea where “sophomore” comes from. Actually, even for etymologists it’s a bit of a puzzle. From the Oxford English Dictionary we learn that it has to do with designations for students at Cambridge University back in the 17th century and at Harvard, on this side of the Atlantic, in the 18th. Clearly it has to do with the Greek word for wisdom (as in philosophy), or pseudo-wisdom (as in sophistry). At a later stage somebody adjusted the ending to evoke the Greek for foolish (as in moron). But to say “sophomore” means “wise fool” is to impose too much logic on the history of the word.

But who cares? Not one student in a hundred could explain the Greek behind “sophomore,” but every one of them can tell you what it means: a second-year student.

And it really does form a counterpoint to “freshman.” When you say “sophomore” instead of “second-year student,” you nicely emphasize the big gap between the two years, a gap that really does exist. To a student, whatever else the mumbo-jumbo “sophomore” means, it means something significant, something profound, perhaps, that results from making one’s way through the freshman year. It’s not just the learning, but the orientation to the customs and manners of the school, that sophomores have attained.

How apt, then, “freshman” appears in this context. It’s not a derogatory term—fresh is a lot better than stale. And fresh also suggests fresh perspectives that the new students bring to the institution. It’s just very different from sophomore.

After the changes of those first two years, students can settle down as juniors and seniors without so much lexicographical legerdemain. Still, “junior” and “senior” reflect the progression toward graduation better than “third-year” and “fourth-year,” which are merely parts of a series that has no indication of stopping at four.

All of which, I hope, demonstrates my freshman logic and sophomoric wisdom.

Return to Top