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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.

Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.


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