Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
For better or worse, students are resuming their studies this month, whether at home on a computer or actually going back into the schools. Those beginning their second year of high school or college will be sophomores, a longstanding label with an odd history.
It begins with the Greek sophos, meaning “wise” — a root that appears in philosophy (“love of wisdom”) and Hagia Sophia (“holy wisdom”). In ancient Greece, Sophists were people who would teach students in exchange for payment. Though they taught a number of subjects, Sophists were most recognized for teaching young men the tricks of rhetoric — that is, they taught people how to argue.
Sophists were widely condemned by philosophers of the day (including Socrates and Aristotle), who proclaimed that Sophists and their students were more interest in arguing than in acquiring knowledge. It’s this view of sophistry that came through classical writings and colored our modern definition of sophist (not capitalized): a pedant or dissembler, someone who argues circuitously or deceitfully.
There was also an archaic variant of the word sophist that was a bit less harsh: sophumer basically meant “arguer.” Sometime during the mid-17th century, that word was chosen to describe a student in their second year at a university. It might have even been used in jest at first; the existence of the know-it-all teenager who constantly argues is so widespread that it’s a cliché. (The adjective sophomoric describes this sort of naive overconfidence in one’s knowledge.)
By the end of that century, whether intentionally or simply from a misunderstanding of the word’s history, sophumer drifted into sophomore under the influence of the Greek moros “stupid” — also the root of the word moron.
Sophomore, then, breaks down into the Greek roots sophos and moros, “wise” and “stupid,” making it an oxymoron — as well as etymologically related to the word oxymoron. Whether any individual sophomore partakes more of the former or the latter is entirely up to the student.
Featured image: n_defender / Shutterstock
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