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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.


The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.


According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.


History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.


Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.


The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."


Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”


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