What Does “Sophomore” Mean? Can It Be an Insult?

Of the four tiers of high school, sophomore is the year that stands out as strange. Freshman, junior, and senior are relatively clear monikers for their associated levels, and it’s funny that in school, the place where you are most expected to know the how and why of everything, second-year students are called by a term whose roots are abstruse. Then there is the problem of the word sophomoric. We apologize in advance, but this is the actual definition: “suggestive of or resembling the traditional sophomore; intellectually pretentious, overconfident, conceited, etc., but immature.”

Sophomore derives from an earlier English term, sophumer, which is a variation of the Greek sophism, “clever device.” (A competing folk etymology holds that it is a portmanteau of sophos, “wise”, and moros meaning “foolish, dull.”) A sophist is literally “one who is wise,” but the term became derogatory in Greek culture because it seemed a little unwise (or simply arrogant) to proclaim about one’s own wisdom. Teachers with more humility came to be known as philosophers, literally “lovers of wisdom.”

The term in question was first applied to second-year students in college, not high school. At Cambridge University (founded in 1209), second- and third-year students were called sophisters. Perhaps their arguments weren’t expected to be as lucid as those of upperclassmen. By the late 1600s, this appellation had morphed in sophomore. (First-year students were freshmen, fresh to the field of philosophical debate, and thus free from the grueling discipline of oral argument.) Many centuries later in the mid-1800s, sophomoric acquired the negative adjectival sense mentioned above. Perhaps the best part of being a sophomore is that it doesn’t last forever.

Any other school words you’d like us to explore? Let us know.