Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-17, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 11 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2017.


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core definition

Sophister refers to undergraduates on their penultimate (junior) or final (senior) year of study.

explanatory context

Sophister is used only in a few settings, notably Trinity College, Dublin. The term has evolved into sophomore in the United States.


Etymologically, sophister comes from sophist (Greek sophistes). As Straight Dope (2001) argues:

Greek sophisma (“sophism”) seems to have entered English two ways, first from the Old French sophime (or soffime), and later from that word’s source, the Latin sophisma (or perhaps from a different Old French form, sophisme, which is also the modern French form.) So English had both sophume and sophism as synonyms, and also had the synonymous pair sophumer and sophister for what we would now call a “sophist.”

analytical review

Straight Dope (2001) provides this explanation of sophister:

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, debate and argument (as an educational exercise, not necessarily as a path to knowledge) was considered an important part of education at Cambridge University. A first-year student at Cambridge, who was not expected to engage in such arguments, was called a fresh-man, which originally meant a novice at any activity. Second- and third-year student were assigned points that they were expected to defend in debate, and clever new arguments were called sophisms. From this, the upperclassmen were called sophisters ("users of sophisms"). This group was later divided into junior sophisters (or junior sophs, second-year students) and senior sophisters (or senior sophs, third-year students). In the seventeenth century, the designation sophumer (essentially a synonym of sophister) was inserted between freshman and junior soph. This does not appear to have been an extra year, but seems to have been one or more terms at the end of the first year or beginning of the second, or both. The bachelor's program at Cambridge has traditionally had just a three-year course of three terms per year (but some programs now require four years to earn a bachelor's degree there).

The sophister designations were also used at Oxford University for a time, but it didn't catch on to the same degree. They are no longer used at Cambridge either, but they survive at Trinity College, Dublin, which uses the four designations junior freshman, senior freshman, junior sophister, and senior sophister.

[In the United States], the Cambridge designations were used at the first American college, Harvard. It may not be mere coincidence that the school’s namesake and benefactor, John Harvard, was a graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The system spread to other American schools from Harvard. Harvard’s influence extended to other educational terminology. Alma mater (from the Latin for "foster mother") and alumnus (Latin for "foster son") originated there as well.

By 1726 sophumer had become sophomore in America, the modern spelling probably being influenced by the false etymology from Greek moros (“foolish”). The upperclassmen's "sophister" designation was gradually dropped, disappearing by about 1850. That leaves… the familiar freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Straight Dope, 2001, A Staff Report by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, What's the origin of "sophomore"?, 26 December 2001,, accessed 9 September 2012, still available 11 January 2017.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2017

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