The Hidden Power of Words: Back-to-School Edition

posted in: Language 1

Image of school classes, Freshman, sophomore, junior and senior The Hidden Power of Words series takes a look at the language origins of frequently used words across the subjects of organizing, time management and productivity.

We end this month’s back-to-school series with a look at a collection of school-related words: high school/college/university grade levels.

There’s quite a lot of hidden history (and fascinating order) when it comes to the words we use in today’s day and age!

freshman |ˈfreSHmən|
a first-year student at a university, college, or high school

sophomore |ˈsäf(ə)ˌmôr|
a second-year college or high school student

junior |ˈjo͞onyər|
noun                                                                                                                                      a student in the third year of college or high school

senior |ˈsēnyər|
a student in the final year of college or high school


Today’s Words: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior

Common Phrases and Usage in American English: “Is she a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior in college?”

My Take on the Definitions and Guesses as to the Origins:

It is only fitting to end this month’s back-to-school series with some orderly education. High school, college and university grade levels are well-known, but did you ever consider the origins of these words?

Here’s my take on the origins of each of today’s words:

‘Freshman’ Hmm, I’m not sure…perhaps this is in reference to a person being fresh, or new at something? I’m going to guess Old English/German origins for this one.

‘Sophomore’ I’ve already looked up this words origins, so I’ll stay mum. Hint: the word has Greek origins.

‘Junior’ I’m not quite sure where this word might come from…perhaps Old English/German?

‘Senior’ This one is fairly self-exclamatory. Old English or German perhaps?

Drumroll Please:


mid-16c., “newcomer, novice,” from fresh (adj.1) + man (n.). Sense of “university student in first year” is attested from 1590s. Related: Freshmen.


ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: perhaps from earlier sophumer, from sophum, sophom (obsolete variants of sophism) + –er1.

Let’s take a look at ‘sophism’

sophism |ˈsäfizəm|
a fallacious argument, esp. one used deliberately to deceive.

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French sophime, via Latin from Greek sophisma ‘clever device,’ from sophizesthai ‘become wise’ (see sophist) .


ORIGIN Middle English (as an adjective following a family name): from Latin, comparative of juvenis ‘young.’


ORIGIN late Middle English: from Latin, literally ‘older, older man,’ comparative of senex, sen- ‘old man, old.’

Let’s see…I was correct in my guess about ‘freshman’ and I took a pass on guessing the origins of ‘sophomore.’ ‘Junior’ and ‘senior’ were quite self-exclamatory in the end (come to think of it, so was ‘freshman.’). Even though I guessed English origins, I guessed a little bit too far back in time for ‘junior’ and ‘senior.’

My favorite word origin in this collection is ‘sophomore.’ One’s sophomore year of high school or college is appropriately named; you know a little bit more than a freshman (you are becoming wise), but you are still quite inexperienced when compared to a junior or senior. Slowly, but surely you are learning more and more, and are getting the hang of things.

I think this is a great reflection on how we should live our lives in general. Life really is the best teacher and classroom of them all. Becoming wiser each and every day is the most any of us can do, isn’t it?

Now to you…were you surprised at this collection of word origins? Have any favorites?  Leave a comment below and join in the conversation!

Note: Dictionary used for definitions and references is The New Oxford American Dictionary, Version 2.2.1 (143.1), Apple Inc., Copyright 2005-2011 and The Online Etymology Dictionary,, Copyright 2001-2013.

Follow Rashelle:
Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.
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