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I came across Etymonline's explanation for the word sophomore. I do not understand why this has come to be applied to second-years. Why is a second-year guy a wise one and a fool?

"Student in the second year of university study," literally "arguer," altered from sophumer (1650s, from sophume, archaic variant form of sophism), probably by influence of folk etymology derivation from Greek sophos "wise" + mōros "foolish, dull" (see moron). The original reference might be to the dialectic exercises that formed a large part of education in the middle years. At Oxford and Cambridge, a sophister (from sophist with spurious -er as in philosopher) was a second- or third-year student (what Americans would call a "junior" might be a senior sophister).

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    A sophomore is a moron who thinks he has become smarter after the Freshman year.
    – Kris
    Apr 20, 2012 at 9:28
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    Note that etymonline.com says ... probably by influence of folk etymology derivation from Gk. sophos "wise" + moros "foolish, dull."
    – Hugo
    Apr 20, 2012 at 9:43
  • @Hugo interesting observation. It's like calling someone something between a master and a student.
    – Neil
    Apr 20, 2012 at 9:53

2 Answers 2

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The website Straight Dope talks about sophomore by saying:

Though the first part does come from the Greek word sophos ("wise"), there is no direct relation to the Greek word for "foolish" as is commonly believed. In truth, sophomore is a variation of sophist, a word that has a long and twisted history in itself.

it goes on to say:

Originally, a sophist (Greek sophistes) was a man who had achieved wisdom. The sophist Protagoras is said to have been the first professional teacher, charging only what his students thought he had earned. He, and many sophists who came after him, were serious thinkers but not on the level of, say, Socrates. Later, professional teachers in ancient Greece became generally known as sophists, but many of these were more pretenders to wisdom than truly wise. These guys were the original insufferable know-it-alls.

This aligns with what Random House wrote when sophomore was listed as it's Word of the Day:

In Ancient Greece, the Sophists were initially a class of professional teachers who gave instruction in various fields. The word eventually took on a derogatory sense and was applied to someone of this class who, while professing to teach skill in reasoning, was more concerned with ingenuity than with soundness of argument.

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"A little learning is a dangerous thing."

A "sophomore" is a "second-round" person, with enough experience to get into trouble, and not enough to avoid it.

Not everyone fits this pattern, but enough do to make this a cliche.

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  • @bof How is that a "correction"?
    – Scimonster
    Aug 22, 2016 at 6:38
  • @Scimonster It's not a proverb, it's a quotation from Alexander Pope.
    – bof
    Aug 22, 2016 at 7:05
  • It's not an answer. He doesn't ask for the definition. He can read the definition. He ask why.
    – Quidam
    Nov 3, 2019 at 10:01

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