freshman_first_year_school_ornament_roundThis year, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman — oops, first-year — seminar. Right there is the problem. As readers of this blog know, I like to be on top of the latest gender-neutral neologism. For many years, the term freshman has belonged to a class of designations (fireman, policeman, mailman) for which our culture has tried to find gender-neutral alternatives. As my Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan noted in 2013, within colleges — arguably one of the most progressive institutions we have — we’re having trouble getting there. Why?

We can start with how we got all four of the terms we use for college students as they advance through the ranks: freshmen (first-year students), sophomores, juniors, seniors. Fresh men dates back at least 500 years, and its meaning is fairly self-explanatory. The term sophomore is more slippery. On the one hand, you’ve got the Greek word sophos, for wisdom, combined with moros, for foolish, yielding a wise moron. On the other, you have sophistry, the use of fallacious arguments, which lets us apply sophomoric to anyone, student or no, who engages in pretentious, juvenile behavior. Complicating matters further, junior and senior were originally junior sophester and senior soph, or simply sophester — presumably because junior is a comparative adjective and the soph here refers to that wisdom thing.

So one impediment to change is the triad of terms that define the other three years of college, at least in the United States (in England, students begin as freshmen, or freshers, but then become second-years, etc., so their quandary is different). If we change freshman to first-year student, why do the other designations remain the same confusing set?

Another stumbling block, in my admittedly brief experience undergoing the various meetings and training sessions that now precede the teaching of the first-year seminar, is that first-year is a clumsy substitute. Just about every website I checked, when it updated the term freshman, substituted first-year student. Try saying first-year student, sophomore, junior, senior. Doesn’t roll off the tongue.

Attempts to use first-year, like freshman, as both adjective and noun (“There go the first-years”) have mostly fallen flat, perhaps because the singular seems still to want something to modify. The University of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson’s educational philosophy calls for students to be named after their year, presents an apparent exception. But I checked with a friend who attended UVa, and she reports a peculiar phenomenon. Students might ask, “What year are you?” and receive the answer, “I’m fourth year” rather than “I’m a senior.” If one asks of a group of students, “What are they?” — meaning “Are they sophomores or juniors? — one will get the response “They’re third year.” In other words, no one creates a plural with the term, and so it is not really used as a compound noun. It’s as if, curious about the rank of a group of professors, you were to ask, “What are they?” and receive the response, “They’re associate” rather than “They’re associate professors” or “They’re associates.” Apparently this noun-eliding formulation works for UVa students, but I haven’t seen it spread anywhere else.

It may also be that the American tradition of naming the years in high school has impeded any change in these terms once students get to college. For most students, ninth grade is a continuation; they may have shifted to a new building, and they roam more between classes, but essentially they see a continuation of their secondary education.  Calling someone a first-year, in that case, feels odd; hence, they arrive at college with freshman implanted in the brain.

Finally, I suspect we are reluctant to foist too much change at once on newly arrived 18-year-olds. We strive to ease this transition, to keep the challenges manageable, to make students feel more comfortable (an adjective I heard a lot in my training sessions). We are hoping the gender neutralizing will come about organically or by gentle persuasion; thus you have Penn State’s effort to indulge the old-fashioned (The following types of students are considered first-year applicants [or freshman applicants, as some refer to them]”). We have Elon University’s vice-president of communications striving to prevent any appearance that first-year is a term dictated by college policy: “We use the word ‘freshman’ interchangeably.” Although my small institution sticks to first-year in all descriptions of the academic program taken by a student in his or her first year, the term freshman crops up on 362 separate pages within the institution’s website.

And even folks like me, who stick with mail carrier and restaurant server and the like, get tongue-tied when it comes to freshman versus first-year. I’ve taken to saying frosh, which I prefer to the English freshers, the latter sounding to me like a sort of shower or cheap room spray. Anyone else — that is, among those who even see this as a problem — have a solution?


Clarification (9/27/15): This post has been updated to include a link to a post by another Lingua Francan on the word freshman.

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