We love nothing more here at the Curiosity Desk than answering a question that comes from you, our listeners and readers. And today we have one that is perhaps my favorite kind of question. It's what I call a “hiding in plain sight” question; one about something so common that most of us don’t even think to ask it. But thankfully Dora Evans, a senior at Needham High School, did. 

"I was wondering where the High School and College year names come from – so Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior. And I asked my friends and they didn’t know either. And then my mom suggested that I email you guys."

Dora needs not worry that she and her friends didn’t know this one. At first, it even stumped the experts at the dictionary.  

"Honestly, nobody I knew knew this. And I didn’t. And it’s a good question," said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large forMerriam-Webster in Springfield.

Sokolowski suspected that like many of America’s collegiate traditions, these terms had their roots in England’s venerable universities Oxford and Cambridge. And sure enough, his research confirmed just that.

"This really is about rank," he explained. "Part of British culture — in terms of nobility — is a lot about class and rank."

By the 1600s, new students at these English Universities were called the "fresh men," a two-word term that makes sense even to our modern ears. But things get linguistically interesting in year two, where another two-word term, “sophy more,” was coined by combining two ancient Greek words.

"It comes from the Greek word 'sophos,' meaning clever or wise," said Sokolowski. "And the word 'moros,' meaning foolish. And so sophy moore — or sophomore — means 'a wise fool.”"

That "soph" also appears in the word philoSOPHy, which means a love of wisdom. And that same root word "moros," gives us the word moron. 

Following a year as wise fools, the sophy moores would graduate — so to speak — to the level of “sophister,” which draws on that same Greek root word, sophos.

"Sophister is a word in English that goes back to the 14th century, and really what it means is wise man or expert," said Sokolowski. 

But true wisdom and expertise, it seems, cannot be attained in a single year. And so, two levels of sophister — sometimes simply shortened to “soph” — were created.

"You become a junior soph – one who is becoming increasingly wise – and finally, a senior soph – one who has acquired more wisdom," explained Sokolowski.

All of these terms were adopted by Harvard when it was established in 1636. And just as Harvard took its cues from Oxford and Cambridge, most universities and high schools here in the U.S. took theirs from Harvard.

"Clearly, later on, we dropped the word sophister and we kept the junior and senior," said Sokolowski.

That the two-word terms fresh men and sophy mMoore became single words, and that the "sophister" was dropped from junior and senior, should not be a surprise, said Sokolowski. The move toward efficiency over time is a fundamental characteristic of language.

"Just think of something like 'e-mail' or 'website' for example. We frequently now spell website as a single word or email without a hyphen," he added. "Language tends to close up over time."

Notably, while these terms have remained staples here in the U.S., they’ve long fallen out of favor in England. That, too, says Sokolowski, is fairly common.

"There are many words in the French of Quebec that are old fashioned to a person from Paris for example," he explained. "In other words, the colony sometimes retains the terms for a longer period of time than the colonizer does."

Of course language is a living, changing thing. And so, while these terms are ubiquitous for us today, that may not be the case for our children’s children.

"We also, as you know, say 'first year' today as a new term for freshman which is obviously a gendered term," said Sokolowski. "So, 'first year' is a term that we’re watching and will certainly be entered to the dictionary at some point."

And it is that evolutionary aspect of our language that keeps Sokolowski so endlessly fascinated by the words we use.

"These words become building blocks." he said. "There’s so much hidden in plain sight in language and in words."

And given that there are some 170,000 words in common use in English, you’d have to be quite the sophister to get to the bottom of all those mysteries waiting to be uncovered.  

My thanks again to Needham High School Senior Sophister Dora Evans for her question that inspired today’s story. How about you? Do you have something you’ve been curious about? Email me at CuriosityDesk@wgbh.org