Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Britain’s Winter Olympians have been embroiled in controversy this week over whether the high-tech suits worn by the country’s skeleton team give them an unfair aerodynamic advantage. Following suggestions by someone from a rival team that the suits, developed in Northampton, have special drag-resistant ridges, the sport’s governing body confirmed that this was not the case and that the suits are legal.

There are many things to love about this story, not least that it involves a sport in which participants hurtle headfirst downhill at speeds of around 80 mph on what is essentially a metal and plastic tray. The fact that these daredevils refer to themselves as ‘sliders’ and that the sport’s official name is skeleton somehow only adds to the joy. Apparently the sport gets its name from the bony appearance of the sled and not from the likelihood that travelling down an icy slope at speeds exceeding most countries’ speed limit could very possibly kill you.

At the time of writing the Brits have not yet won a medal, although the skeleton is one event in which they have a chance of doing well, along with curling and speed skating.

Skeleton has a number of meanings addition to the set of bones that supports the body of a human or animal,  mostly relating to the structure or basic parts of something. A skeleton key is one that can open many locks, while a skeleton staff or crew or service is not one made up of the living dead, but rather one that is operating with the minimum feasible number of (living) workers. Someone who has a skeleton in their cupboard or closet has a dark secret that threatens to tumble out and embarrass them.

Skeleton has been part of the English language since the 16th century and comes via modern Latin from a Greek word meaning ‘dried up’; which makes me wonder what people called the bony figures that featured so largely in medieval art.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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