Why are High School Students called Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors?
When encountering the education system in the US phrases such as grade school, sophomore, elementary school and Principal are integral to the structure. Many are self explanatory, I had heard these titles in books and in movies but had never really grasped an understanding of what they mean. Why are Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior used to describe the years at high school and college in the US?
When students move from Middle School to High School they often encounter the title Freshman alongside being called 9th graders. What does this title mean and where does it come from?
One of the more obvious titles, Freshman is used at both high school and college level and it is used to denote someone in their first year of study.
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a Freshman as
1.someone who is starting a job or activity
2.a student in the first year of high school or college
suggesting it is a title that can be applied to many situations to denote some one new to the position, sport or career.
Historians link the use of the term Freshman to its use in Cambridge University in the 16th and 17th centuries. During that time debate was part of the curriculum, students were encouraged to argue and discuss points and views. Freshmen, first year students were not expected to participate in these debates and were considered novices.
Interestingly the use of the term is no longer an everyday occurrence in the UK.
Sophomore - 2nd year
Used in high schools and higher education, Sophomore refers to the 2nd year of study. The possible origin of the word is from two Greek terms - sophos meaning 'wise' and moros meaning 'foolish or dull'.
At Cambridge 2nd year students were expected to argue, or debate as part of their curriculum. They were assigned points or sides that they were instructed to debate, their arguments were called sophisms, the students being called sophisters, the second and third years being divided into junior and senior sophisters. In US schools today, Sophomore is typically the year students begin to prepare for college applications, consider their extra curricular activities and start to think about what they plan to do in their future.
High School Senior Graduation
Junior and Senior
Junior relates to the third year of study at both high school and further education, senior to the 4th and last year.
Merriam-Webster defines the word Junior as
younger in age
lower in standing or rank
designed for or done by young people
and the word senior as
a person who is older than another person
a person who is of a higher rank than another person
a student in the final year of high school or college
The names are thought to come from the need to define the two levels of upperclassmen in Universities, junior and senior.
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
So Why Were the titles Adopted in the US education system?
The use of the terms in UK Universities did not catch on in other education institutions and is no longer used in Cambridge. The origins of their use in the US can be traced back to Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Named for its benefactor John Harvard who had attended Emmanuel College Cambridge, it was originally based on the Cambridge model and the system spread to other American institutes of education.