Q: When did expressions like “rising sophomore” start? It’s new to me, a great-grandmother who was last in college 20 years ago.
A: It was new to us too, but not to the lexicographers at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).
In addition to defining the adjective “rising” as ascending, developing, and increasing in power, American Heritage includes this sense: “About to begin a certain grade or educational level: rising seniors.”
Several other standard dictionaries describe “rising” as a preposition or an adverb with a similar sense.
Cambridge, for example, defines the preposition as “about to become,” and gives this example: “The school accepts children who are rising five years old.” And Collins defines the adverb as “approaching the age” and gives this example: “he’s rising 40.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes the use of “rising” as an adjective “designating a student about to enter a specified year of high school or college.”
The first OED citation is in the July 1893 issue of the Kappa Alpha Journal: “Mr. Young is a rising Sophomore and was asked to join us the first of the year.”
We’ve found an even earlier example from another fraternity publication, a report on the 51st annual convention of Beta Theta Pi on Aug. 25-30, 1890, at Wooglin-on-Chautauqua, NY:
“ ‘Did you say that the Lakewood girls like to come to the clubhouse?’ asked the undergraduate, who is a rising sophomore.”
The OED defines this sense of “rising” as “U.S. Educ. Designating a student about to enter a specified year of high school or college.”
The dictionary has three other examples—the latest is an April 22, 2001, advertisement in the New York Times Magazine: “Your rising senior or high school graduate can earn two college credits.”
When the word “rising” showed up in the early 1200s, it was a noun meaning “return to life” or “rising from the dead,” according to the OED. When the adjective showed up in the late 1300s, it meant increasing, advancing, or growing.
Both the noun and the adjective are derived from the verb “rise,” which the Anglo-Saxons inherited from Germanic, a prehistoric language reconstructed by linguists.
In Old English, the verb (spelled risan) originally referred to getting up in the morning or rising from the dead.
Getting back to your question, the educational use of “rising” may have evolved from a much earlier sense of the adjective as moving toward a position of higher social status, greater wealth, or increased power.
The earliest Oxford example for this sense is from The Tragidie of Ferrex and Porrex, a 1570 play by the English writers Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville:
“Who seeth not now how many rising mindes / Do feede their thoughts, with hope to reach a realme?”
The adjective has also been used to describe a horse or person approaching a specified age. The first OED citation is from John Cheny’s 1730 history of horse racing in England and Wales: “All the rising five Years Old, 200 Guineas each, Half forfeit.”
[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 10, 2023.]