We know sophomore as “second”–second year of school, primarily, both high school and college…but it’s been extended to other “seconds” as well. One’s second book is called one’s sophomore work, and so on. That primary meaning has been in use in English since the 1680s, of university students.

But when you dig a little deeper into this word, you find a good laugh.

The word was originally sophume, which literally meant “arguer.” It traces it’s roots back to the Greek sophia, of course: “wisdom.” But more particularly, to sophist, which at its own root was supposed to be “a master of one’s craft, a wise or prudent man”…but which colloquially came to be seen as someone who argues a point, not much caring whether it’s right or not–they just want to win. They’ll say whatever sounds good. (There are quite a few ancient documents that delineate the difference between a sophist and a philosopher. By the time Plato wrote, sophist had a definite negative connotation among the learned.)

And that connotation was rather purposefully drawn into this English version, too. It was chosen for second year students because they tend to argue and think they’re right. Evidence for that can be seen by the variation from sophume to sophomore. That -mor is an appeal to “moron.” Yep. Sophomore is a deliberate mash-up of “wise and prudent” and “moron.”

I can laugh because I’ve been a sophomore twice in school and as a writer too, and boy, do I see the truth in that! 😉

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