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The Etymology of 16 Weird and Wonderful Olympic Words

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Every two years we get to marvel at them—no, not the superhuman feats of strength and skill from the greatest athletes in the world, but the weird and wonderful names of the many, varied Olympic sports. Here’s a look at some winning Olympic words, and their origins, taking the podium at Rio 2016.

1. POLO

At today’s Olympics, polo is a water sport; its original form, played on horseback, left the program after the 1936 games. The British army brought the sport, and term, to the West from the East. The ancient game is believed to have originated in either Central Asia or modern day Iran, spreading to the mountainous regions of India and Tibet, where it was encountered by the British in the mid-19th century. Cited in 1872, polo is a rendering of a Balti Tibetan word, pulu, or “ball,” that target of the sport’s swinging mallets.

2. BADMINTON

Another game British officers imported from the East is badminton, inspired by the Indian poona. In England, it's said that the game was first played at Badminton House in  western England in 1873. But record of badminton predates this allegedly inaugural match by a decade, which describes it as closely related to the children’s game of battledore and shuttlecock (don’t tell the Olympians). But it is possible it’s still named after the house itself; the 1863 account is about “Life in a Country House,” but it never says which house.

3. JAVELIN

Javelin throwing was one of the events of the original pentathlon at the ancient Greek Olympics. The historic Hellenes didn’t call it the javelin, of course: akon or akontion was the word they flung around.

Javelin is first documented in the compound javelin-spear in 1513. A related form, javelot, appeared several decades earlier. Both terms come from a French word for a “light spear.” Where the French javeline comes from, though, is much disputed; many scholars look to a Celtic root that means “forked,” a branch of a tree presumably fashioned into a spear.

4. DISCUS

The discus was another event of the original pentathlon. The Greeks threw diskos, while the Romans threw discus, which is the immediate source of the English word, by 1581. Both diskos and discus referred to various “round, flat objects”—and not only objects athletes heaved, but also the “face” of the sun. At the root of the Greek diskos is a verb meaning “to throw” or “cast.” English’s disc and disk are related, as are dish and desk, but don’t go trying to throw them to earn your gold medal.

5. MARATHON

The ancient Greeks didn’t run marathons in their Olympics, though footraces were a main event of their games. The marathon joined the Olympic program when the games were rebooted from antiquity in 1896. Much lore surrounds the historical marathon. In one account, it’s claimed that a Greek hero ran from Marathon to Athens to announce that Greece was victorious in their battle with Persia. He delivered his message—and then died, his feat living on in the word marathon.

6. AND 7. BANTAMWEIGHT AND WELTERWEIGHT

Boxing also punches back to the Olympic games of yore. Today, we classify the fighters by weight class, including: flyweight, bantamweight, welterweight, middleweight, and heavyweight.

Bantamweight apparently takes its name from the bantam, named for a particularly feisty kind of chicken, originally from Bantam in Java. The welter in welterweight is obscure, possibly from welt, a term for “beat” or “trash,” as in raising lashes, or welts, on the skin. The original sense of this welt is well outside the ring: It’s a strip of leather sewn right above the sole of a shoe.

A bantamweight boxer is attested by 1884. The simple welter named this heavier-weight boxer (and heavier weight horseriders) much earlier, in 1804. Welter, a “state of confusion or turmoil,” is unrelated.

8. POMMEL

Welterweights may pummel each other, but they don’t pommel each other. This pommel refers to one of the handgrips fitted onto the pommel horse, which gymnasts grab for their agile gyrating in this Olympic event. The grips resemble pommels on the saddles for actual horses, which jut out, knob-like, from the front.

But these equestrian pommels take their name from much earlier, and much “knobbier,” pommels. A term borrowed from the French, English’s earlier pommels first named the knobs placed atop towers or on the hilts of swords. The French pommel literally means “little apple,” round like the many nodes it lent its name to. The root is Latin: pomum, “fruit.”

The term pommel horse was in use by the beginning of the 20th century, the pommels themselves a few decades prior.

9. TRAMPOLINE

Good thing trampolinists don’t have to perform their routines on the etymology of their event. Trampoline, in English since at least the late 1790s, is from the Italian trampoli, meaning “stilts.” The further origin is unclear, but many scholars think it’s indeed related to the English word tramp, “to stamp around,” whose walking-about inspired the slang for “vagrant.”

10. SCULL

In scull rowing, the athlete propels the boat by swinging two oars at the same time. These oars are known as sculls, a name since given to the kind of boat the rowers use. Scull is a very old word in the English language—the Oxford English Dictionary attests it as early as 1345—but its origin is obscure.

Could scull be related to skull, a word it looks and sounds so much like? No, not that skull. (Well, probably not that skull.) See, English also had this word skull, a “drinking- bowl.” A few etymologists liken the scooped blade of the scull to the hollow basin of the skull—and others have argued that humans once made these drinking-bowls from actual human skulls.

11. SLALOM

In the canoe slalom, Olympians zigzag their watery way through obstacles. The original slaloming, as we know from the Winter Games, is executed on skis. And so slalom, fittingly, is from a Norwegian word: slalåm, literally “sloping track.” (The English word lane is related to låm, “track.”) Slalom skiing dates back to the 1920s in the English-language record, its canoeing cousin to the 1950s.

12. SKEET

Skeet-shooting is another sport that owes an etymological debt to Norwegian. A Massachusetts businessman and hunter is credited with cooking up this clay target shooting in the 1920s. And, according to a 1926 edition of the National Sportsman, a competition gave the new sport its name. As the Oxford English Dictionary quotes the magazine:

"Since the prize of $100 was offered for the most suitable name for the new shooting sport … nearly 10,000 suggestions have been received ... After careful consideration, the name that seemed best was ‘skeet’, a very old form of our present word ‘shoot’ … Mrs. Gertrude Hurlbutt, Dayton, Montana, sent in the suggestion."

While there are old forms of shoot that look broadly like skeet (such as scytt from circa 1000 CE), it might have actually been referring to the Old Norwegian skotja.

13. FENCING

Fence, the artful swordplay, is shortened from defence. Via French, defence—or defense—comes from the Latin defendere, to “drive away,” hence defend. And yes, a picket fence also ultimately derives from this verb.

14., 15., AND 16. STEEPLECHASE, SHOT PUT, AND FREESTYLE

Finally, several Olympic events feature an unusual combination of everyday words.

Why are steeplechasers chasing steeples in this unusual 3000-meter event, requiring runners to jump over hurdles and water on the track? History has it that this event began on horseback in Ireland, where riders once raced through the countryside, using steeples as distance markers/finish lines and negotiating stone walls and streams along their way.

What is the put in the shot put? Here, the hardy hurlers are putting the shot, where put is a much older sense of today’s common put: “to thrust.” In the 1300s, this put referred to the act of thrusting a heavy stone in medieval contests—a usage that survives in shot put.

Swimmers, sadly, aren’t rapping in the pool when they swim a freestyle race. Freestyle rapping emerged as a term in the early 1980s, whereas freestyle swimming goes all the way back the 1910s. Freestyle means a swimmer is “free” to choose whichever stroke, or “style,” he or she wants in the race. The earliest known freestyle reference, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, made its first splash, actually, in reference to discus-throwing.

All images courtesy of Getty Images.

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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

"Keep it Simple" written in book
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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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Love Hygge? Meet Lagom, Your New Favorite Scandinavian Philosophy
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The Danish concept of hygge is all about indulging in simple pleasures during the cold, dark winter months. In Sweden, people take a different approach to living their best lives: They focus on lagom, an idea that roughly translates to “not too much, not too little, just the right amount.”

As Condé Nast Traveler reports, lagom can be found everywhere in Swedish culture. Swedes might use it to describe the strength of their coffee or slip it into conversation with sayings like lagom är bäst (“lagom is best”). But you don't need to speak Swedish to embrace the concept. Condé Nast Traveler has a few tips for how to incorporate lagom into your own life no matter how far from Scandinavia you live.

One obvious place to practice lagom is in the home. Get rid of the clutter you haven’t used in years and hold onto items with practical value. But because lagom is all about balance, you should leave room in your house for objects with special aesthetic or sentimental value as well.

Lagom also has a place at work. If you’re someone who works non-stop from 9 to 5, remember to schedule time for breaks and really disconnect from your job during those times. It may feel like slacking off, but your work performance will actually benefit.

Finally, one of the most important ways Swedes express lagom is through day-to-day personal interactions. If you live according to the lagom philosophy, dominating the conversation isn’t a priority. Giving others room to speak, and even allowing comfortable silences to form, is more important.

Looking for another untranslatable European life philosophy to adopt this winter? In Scotland, Còsagach is how people stay cozy.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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