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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.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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