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The origin of freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior

You’ve likely heard the different terms that are used to describe what year of study a student is in. First-year high school students are referred to as freshmen, second-year students are known as sophomores, and third-year students are called juniors. Fourth-year students, the most experienced of them all, are known as seniors.

These terms then start over again when a student heads to college. It’s an interesting way to talk about what grade a student is in, especially since this isn’t done in the secondary schools. Where did those words come from, and what do they mean?

This practice does seem to be largely an American one. However, you can trace some of the origins all the way back to 1688 in Cambridge when the following terms happened:

-First-year students were known as “Fresh Men”
-Second-year students were known as “Sophy Moores”
-Third-year students were known as “Junior Soph”
-Fourth-year students were known as “Senior Soph”

However, the origins of these terms may go back even more. Let’s look at each term to learn when it became popular.


The word “freshman” dates all the way back to the mid-16th century. It meant “novice” or “newcomer” and was used to denote a university student who was in his or her first year of study. It was also used in the 1590s.


The word sophomore was likely derived from two Greek terms. The term sophos means “wise”, while the term moros means “dull” or “foolish”. Originally, sophomore likely meant “wise moron”. This term dates back to the 1650s and was used to describe university students who were enjoying their second year of study.


The word junior can be traced back to the end of the 13th century. Junior can mean someone younger or even younger of the two. When used in relation to upperclassmen, juniors were often called “Junior Soph”.


The term senior has been used since the mid-14th century and comes from the Latin adjective of the exact same spelling. It denotes either a person in authority or someone who is older. By the early 17th century people began to use the word to describe a student who was “advanced”. It also means a “fourth-year student”.

The origin of these words is a fascinating subject to many people who wonder why they are used. We hope this helps clear up any questions you may have had on the subject!