What Is the Origin of Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior?

Ian K. asks: Why are students called freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors?

graduationRather than referring to a student’s year of study, in U.S. high schools and colleges, first year students are freshmen, second years are sophomores, third year students are juniors, and the most experienced are seniors.

Yet although this practice seems uniquely American, its origins date back several centuries to Cambridge where in 1688:

The several degrees of persons in the University Colledges . . . Fresh Men, Sophy Moores, Junior Soph, or Sophester. And lastly Senior Soph.

That said, the origins of these individual terms go back even farther.


A child of Modern English, “freshman” dates back to the mid-16th century where it has invariably meant either “newcomer” or “novice.” Its use to denote a “university student in first year,” also dates to the 1590s.


Likely derived from folk use of two Greek terms, sophos, meaning “wise,” and moros, meaning “foolish, dull,” sophomore originally probably meant a wise moron! Dating back to the 1650s, by the 1680s, the term was used to designate university students in their second year of study, as well as an “arguer” – this latter use referring to the “dialectic exercises that formed a large part of education in the middle years.”


Dating back to the end of the 13th century, junior has always meant someone younger, or more particularly, “the younger of two.” Defined in relations to their more learned upperclassmen, early on, juniors were called “Junior Soph,” and seniors were denoted with “Sophester”.


Since the mid-14th century, senior has been used in English to denote either an older person or one of authority. Derived from the Latin adjective of the same spelling (meaning older), by the early 17th century, it was being used to describe an “advanced student,” and since 1741, it has meant a “fourth year student.”

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Secondary and Higher Ed Facts

  • In the U.S., the high school status dropout rate (the percentage of 16-24 year olds who are neither enrolled in, nor earned a diploma or equivalent from, high school) has declined in recent years. As of 2011, it was 7 percent, and for the 2009-2010 school year, over 3 million (78.2%) public high school students graduated on time.
  • Between 1991 and 2001, enrollment in college degree granting institutions increased from 15.9 million to 21.0 million. This is largely due to the steep economic advantage a college degree offers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with bachelor’s degrees had median weekly earnings in 2013 70% higher than those who had only a high school diploma. In addition, they were also 47% more likely to be employed!
  • According to government data, in 2004, 4.3 million freshmen enrolled in classes at 3,800 colleges. Of those, 487,000 graduated from public universities, 292,000 earned diplomas from private colleges, 119,000 graduated from community colleges and 121,000 earned degrees from for-profit schools. Of the remaining three million, over two million either dropped out, or (fingers crossed) simply started at one college but graduated from another. Of the remaining, many could have been part-time students, a group not tracked by Uncle Sam.
  • College attendance comes at a price. As of 2014, American college students owe $1.08 trillion in student loans. This amount has doubled since 2007, and now exceeds American credit card and auto loan debt, which are at $679 billion and $783 billion, respectively. However, unlike credit card debt and auto loans, achieving a college degree typically results in a significant monetary return on your investment, particularly if one chooses a marketable degree.
  • That said, nearly 40% of student loan borrowers owe more than $10,000. Likewise, 40% of households headed by a person aged 34 or younger owe student debt, and the burden is becoming overwhelming: “Nationally, student loans that are more than 60 days past due have increased almost 20 percent year over year.”
  • In addition, as mentioned, there is a difference among college degrees. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, among recent graduates, the college majors with the lowest unemployment in recent years were nursing (4.8%), elementary education (5.0%), physical fitness, parks & rec (5.2%), chemistry (5.8%) and finance (5.9%). Conversely, those majors with highest rates of unemployment were information systems (14.7%), architecture (12.8%), anthropology (12.6%), film, video & photography (11.4%) and political science (11.1%).
  • Likewise, the fields with the highest median earnings for recent college grads were engineering ($54,000), health ($43,000), computers and math ($45,000) and the industrial arts ($41,000). Those fields with the lowest median earnings were recreation ($29,000), psychology and social work ($30,000), life and physical science ($30,000) and the fine arts ($30,000).
  • In a recent report, the Center on Education and the Workforce projected that the U.S. economy will create 25 million new jobs by 2020 (for a total of 165,000,000). Through 2020, as the Baby Boomers retire, 55 million jobs will open up for younger workers. Sixty-five percent of these will require education and training after high school, and the fastest growing sectors are projected to be healthcare, community services and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
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