In modern English, the term "sophism" refers to any false or specious rhetoric which deceives the listener. The term originates in ancient Greece with a group of philosophers and rhetoricians known as Sophists. It was not originally negative, but has acquired a negative meaning largely as a result of the philosopher Plato, who was highly critical of the Sophists.
In classical Greece, the term 'Sophist,' which derives from 'sophia,' the Greek word for wisdom, originally seems to have denoted a sage or wise man. In Athens during the 5th century BC and later, the term came to refer to scholars who offered instruction in philosophy and rhetoric, particularly to young men of aristocratic families. Sophism in this sense consisted of an education which would prepare them for public life, especially for political and legal oratory. In Athens, all male citizens were directly involved in affairs of government such as trials and legislation, making these very useful skills.
Students of Socrates, particularly Plato, criticized the Sophists, who charged for their teaching. Plato argued that the Sophists taught their students how to manipulate arguments and use dishonest rhetoric in order to win, rather than to use philosophical inquiry to arrive at the truth. Protagoras, one of the most prominent Sophists, was said to boast that he could make the weaker of two arguments appear the stronger. Plato's dialogues show Socrates in conflict with Sophism; Socrates engages in debates with Sophists such as Protagoras and defeats them. Historians of philosophy believe that Plato's dialogues may be unfair to the Sophists, exaggerating their views and painting them in an unflattering light.
Sophism, however, became permanently associated with the criticisms of Plato and his student Aristotle. The term came to mean any argument in which one participant relied on rhetorical skill and trickery rather than fact and reason to persuade the other. Today the terms 'sophism' and 'sophistry' are negatively charged, and to accuse an opponent of sophistry is a very serious criticism.
In modern terms, sophism or sophistry is the deployment of logically flawed arguments which persuade hearers through their emotional content. For instance, when accused of an immoral action, a speaker might point out that others have engaged in the same conduct. This has a powerful emotional effect, making the accuser appear to be a hypocrite or bully for singling out one person, but it fails to answer the question. This logical fallacy, known to philosophers as the "tu quoque" or "you yourself" fallacy, is a common piece of sophistry.