Why Are First-Year Students Called Freshmen?


Image credit: Duke.edu

There was a time when almost every university student was a sophomore.  Well, a sophister, to be exact, but that’s where the word “sophomore” originated. A sophist was a wise man (derived from the Greek word sophos), so when Henry VIII endowed the “new” Cambridge University in the 16th century, it was decided to use that term to describe the students. A first year student was simply a fresh-man, which was a term applied to a novice in virtually any field at that time. Second year students were “junior sophists,” and third year were “senior sophists.”  (Cambridge was a three-year university at the time.)

John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University in the U.S., was a graduate of Cambridge, so he brought the terminology with him to the Colonies. When four years eventually became the standard amount of time necessary to obtain a college degree, first year students were still “fresh-men,” while the second year was dubbed sophumer, a variation of sophist. Other universities started using the designations as well, and eventually “sophumer” became “sophomore,” and “sophist” was dropped from the junior and senior years. The terms weren’t applied to high school students until the early 20th century, and now in the 21st century we have evolved to the point where some politically correct mavens object to the “man” in “freshman.” To them we say call yourself whatever you want—just don’t get caught alone in the locker room when there’s an upperclassman nearby.