Even though most people know what the word “sophomore” means in the general sense, the path to its common usage has been a long and winding one. The word has only been used to designate class status in the United States in the last 150 or so years. The word actually has its roots in ancient Greece, and two schools of thought continue to duke it out concerning the etymology of the word.
The literal meaning of the word “sophomore” is “wise fool” (from the Greek, “sophos” and “moros”). In the United States, this word is used to define a student in his 2nd year of high school or college. Since a student who has already been through his 1st year of high school or college is wiser than those who follow, the first part of the designation makes a kind of sense.
Reason for Use
Perhaps the reason the word was chosen to define students in their 2nd year of college or high school was because even though these students may have had just enough education to think themselves wise, they still had not had enough education to truly be wise.
Some etymologists argue that being a smart moron has nothing to do with it. In fact, they point out that in ancient Greece, a “sophist” was defined as “one who had attained wisdom.” Also, in ancient Greece, paid teachers were known as “sophists.” They often engaged in debates using arguments that became known as “sophisms,” so the use of those arguments was known as “sophistry.”
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Cambridge University assigned students to engage in debate and argument as part of their studies. However, this activity was considered too advanced for freshman students. Therefore, it was only assigned to the 3 higher class levels, which began to be called, “sophumers,” “junior sophumers” and “senior sophumers.” Here, the word “sophumer” meant “one who uses sophisms.”
Across the Atlantic
While Cambridge no longer uses these classifications to define its students, Harvard University picked up their use, likely because John Harvard, its founder, had graduated from Cambridge and brought those terms with him. Other American schools followed suit. In 1726, the spelling of the word “sophumer” became “sophomore.” Eventually, in the mid-1800s, the class levels became “freshman,” “sophomore,” “junior” and “senior.”
High School Designation
High school students in the United States did not receive these designations until around the turn of the 20th century. Outside the United States, other countries refer to high school students in their second year as “second years.” In British English, the word “sophomore” is completely unknown.