Word Improvisation

Investigations of slang by the editor of theRandom House Historical Dictionaryof American Slang.

A Frosh

THE Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 with the help of seventy-two freshmen brought new life not just to the Republican presence on the Hill but also to a seeming diminutive of freshmen -- frosh. The Republican frosh continued to be invoked during last year's campaign, frequently in tones of trepidation rather than triumph, as their ties to the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, came to be seen as a political liability. The Washington Post published a pre-election list of "GOP Frosh in Danger." A headline in the congressional newspaper The Hill warned, "Republican frosh struggle for survival." That sixty-four of the original seventy-two Republican freshmen were ultimately returned to Congress owed much to a strategy described by Business Week:"GOP frosh put distance between themselves and the Speaker."

Whence this frosh?The common assumption that it is derived from the fresh of freshman requires some sort of explanation for the very unusual change of the vowel sound -- or some evidence that freshman has ever been pronounced "froshman." No authority, including the magisterial Dictionary of American Regional Englishand its British counterpart, the English Dialect Dictionary, seems to have discovered native speakers who pronounce freshman with either the "ah" or the "aw" demanded by frosh. The absence of "froshman" from our linguistic records should raise immediate suspicions. Although linguistic innovation is mostly unpredictable, phonetic changes usually follow certain known patterns, of which the most pronounced (so to speak)in English may have been the centuries-long (roughly 1400 to 1700) reconfiguration of sound now called the Great Vowel Shift, when the quality of certain vowels in many English words was altered. (To gain a sense of the kind of change involved, consider that Shakespeare's Falstaff pronounced the word reason as though it were raisin.) But not even during that period of extraordinary vocalic change did the word freshman, first noted around 1550, shift anywhere to "froshman."

The superficial resemblance of frosh to the fresh in freshman may have helped to ease frosh's widespread adoption, but the origin of the word must lie elsewhere. As early as the 1850s a Harvard senior, Benjamin H. Hall, observed in his book A Collection of College Words and Customs that "In Germany, a student in the gymnasium, and before entering the university, is called a Frosch, -- a frog."Although the American use of the word frosh is not solidly attested until 1915, its similarity in sound, sense, and social milieu to Frosch argues strongly for a German origin. That the German application of the word Frosch to students was known, if not yet imitated, in American colleges as early as the 1850s bolsters this etymological claim. And German universities such as Heidelberg and Göttingen, which emphasized graduate studies and faculty research as integral to their design, influenced American institutions to follow the German pattern, beginning notably with Johns Hopkins in 1876.

Another point in favor of frosh's having a German origin: From the 1840s on a true diminutive of freshman -- freshie -- was in widespread use, making the emergence of an alternative unlikely. And freshie retained currency in the face of the catchier frosh until well into the present century.

Just when new members of Congress were first called frosh remains obscure, though of course they would have been called members of the freshman classbefore that. That frosh has become the journalistic slang of choice for congressional freshmen seems inevitable in retrospect. It has a satisfying feel. It fits neatly in a headline. And consider some alternatives from the rich synonymy of inexperience: Tenderfoot?Too soft. Rookie? Too athletic. Newby? Fine for the Web, but condescending for the Hill. Cherry? Like newby, once popular in Vietnam, but its original semantic field is too risqué. And as for greenhorn, forget it. Concise, familiar, associated with the sedulous world of academe, frosh is now respectful enough for members of any party. Just ask them.

Illustration by Amy Ning

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Word Improvisation; Volume 279, No. 2; page 112.