Where do ‘freshman’ and ‘sophomore’ come from?
As September begins, campus quads around the world once again teem with bewildered freshmen, a word first used of a university student at Cambridge over 500 years ago. In the half millennium since, the number of terms for university and college students has proliferated like a new student’s Facebook friends, and students in their first year or term are now also known by more colloquial and conveniently gender-neutral synonyms. In the UK and elsewhere, fresher has been in use since the late 19th century, while in the US we have had frosh since the early 20th century. The word frosh is notable for often having, like deer or buffalo, an unmarked plural: dozens of frosh [as opposed to froshes] congregated around the keg.
After their first year or term, university students in most of the English-speaking world are known simply as second-, third- or fourth-years. The great exception is the United States, where the standard nomenclature of freshman/sophomore/junior/senior is applied to high school and college students alike. But as with many other things we Yanks regard as uniquely ours, this four-part naming system actually originated abroad. According to the OED, something similar to the US pattern is first attested at Cambridge in 1688: “The several degrees of persons in the University Colledges… Fresh Men, Sophy Moores, Junior Soph, or Sophester. And lastly Senior Soph.”
St Andrews and Dublin
Those terms words are now obsolete at Cambridge, but certain other universities also have their own unique vocabularies. At Scotland’s University of St Andrews (recently renowned for educating the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge), first-years are known by the term bejant, an alteration of the French béjaune (from bec-jaune ‘yellow beak’ or fledgling). Second-years at St Andrews are called semi-bejants, or semis, third-years tertians, and those in their final year magistrands. Trinity College Dublin also has an idiosyncratic naming system, with first-years as junior freshman, followed by senior freshmen, junior sophisters, and senior sophisters.
Sophister is related to the familiar American appellation sophomore, which is traditionally said to come from Greek sophos ‘wise’ and mōros ‘fool’ (the same root from which we get the word moron), making it particularly apt for the combination of arrogance and ignorance evinced by young people emboldened by the completion of their first year of university studies. However, while this popular etymology has no doubt influenced the usage and spelling of the word, it seems originally to have been a wholly English formation, based on 16th-century variants of the word sophism; in the spelling sophumer it is recorded in OED from 1653. The word originated at the University of Cambridge, where it is now obsolete, but by 1726 it had crossed the pond to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when it was used at Harvard, and to Yale by 1764 (where the spelling sophimore was originally preferred). The word sophomore has begotten an adjective, sophomoric, and is also used attributively to mean ‘second’ as when an author’s second novel is called his or her “sophomore effort”.
Juniors and Seniors
In the United States, juniors and seniors are third- and fourth-year students, respectively. But beware when using this terminology transatlantically! In the UK, junior denotes a student at a Junior School (primary school for ages 7-11). A request to invite lots of juniors to a weekend bacchanal could land you in some serious trouble. Another distinction between the two sides of the pond is that post-secondary students in the US still go to school (or college), whereas in the UK that word is reserved for primary and secondary education, and tertiary students attend university.
Upon graduating from a college or university, a student becomes an alumna or alumnus (from Latin words for ‘foster-daughter’ or ‘foster-son’) of an alma mater (Latin for ‘bounteous mother’). In this jobless age, many flesh-and-blood parents no doubt wish that mater would be just a bit more bounteous, as their graduated children return home with yet another label: jobseeker.