language change and slang Live English

They came, they medalled, they podiumed…

Since, contrary to all expectation, I have found myself swept up in the national epidemic of Olympic fever (it was the bizarrely wonderful opening ceremony that did it), I thought that in place of the usual Word of the Month post I’d take a brief look at some of the sporting terms that have come to the fore over the past couple of weeks. Some – like the verb uses of medal and podium – have been the subject of much comment and a certain amount of harrumphing from the stickler brigade. Others will be familiar to aficionados of particular sports but are new to those – like me – whose inclination when the sport comes on is to swiftly leave the room (always excepting cricket, but that’s not an Olympic sport. I can’t think why.)

I don’t intend to add here to the well-worn debate on the verbing of nouns, except to say that it is a process that has been going on in English ever since English began, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to stop just because some people don’t like it. The verb to podium, less used in the summer Olympics context than to medal, has been around for some time; and as Kerry points out in her BuzzWord article on the subject, it is not so very surprising that people should choose a dynamic-sounding verb over a static noun when talking about winning a medal for extreme physical exertion. Here’s a nice example of the adjectival use of medal:

American swimmer Michael Phelps became history’s most medalled Olympian Tuesday when he and his country’s 4x200m freestyle relay team took gold at the London Games.

Anyone who’s dipped into the judo will have come across the terms judoka, which refers to a practitioner of the sport, and ippon, a full point and the highest achievable score in a martial arts contest. Both of these are of Japanese origin, reflecting the sport’s Far Eastern roots. Another Japanese term is keirin, used in cycling to refer to a race in which the riders complete several laps behind a motorized pacemaker (a derny) before sprinting for the finish. Derny comes from the surname of the vehicles’ original French makers and cycling, unsurprisingly given the country’s  traditional passion for the sport, is full of French terms. There’s the velodrome, of course, where the indoor events take place, from the French word for bicycle and the Greek for a place where people run. And whereas ten days ago I had only a vague notion of what a peloton was, I am now able not only to recognize one when I see it, but also know what the benefits of riding in this formation are. I have further discovered that a domestique  is a servant only in the metaphorical sense of helping someone else to achieve great things while staying in the background.

There are many other fascinating sporting terms that are enjoying their brief moment on the front pages before sinking back into the relative obscurity of the sports section, at least until the next time this feast of sport comes around. But I don’t have space to consider them here, and in any case the final of the men’s freestyle wrestling is about to come on, so if you’ll excuse me I’m off back to the sofa.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


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