The Language of the Olympics

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2016-08-17

Even the most sports-illiterate word nerds (I include myself in this category) will have been paying some attention to this month's Olympic Games — even if only because of some interesting linguistic phenomena. For instance, you may have heard the word "podium" used as a verb, or wondered if "Olympics" takes a singular or a plural verb.


Let's take a look at some Olympic terminology, where it came from, and how it's changing.

Greek Roots

The “Olympics” are named after the ancient Greek city (Olympia) in which highly organized athletic competitions were held every four years in honour of the Greek god Zeus. The Greek roots of the Games won’t likely come as a surprise to anyone, especially given the prevalence of the Greek-sounding terminology that surrounds them. The pentathlon, heptathlon, and decathlon, for instance, are combinations of five, seven, and ten events, respectively; their names come from the Greek pente (five), hepta (seven), deca (ten), and –athlon (competition).


Other perhaps less obviously Greek words are also central to the Olympics. The word “podium” comes from the Greek podion, meaning “base” or “foot” (e.g., of a vase), while “stadium” comes from the Greek stadion, probably referring to a fixed unit of distance.


But it isn’t just the language that is influenced by ancient Greece. The length of a modern-day marathon—that’s 42.195 kilometres, or 26.219 miles—just so happens to be the exact distance between Athens and the ancient city of Marathon. A courrier named Pheidippides, so the fable goes, ran from Marathon to Athens in order to deliver some news, after which he promptly collapsed and died. (That must have been some important news.)


Although Olympic terminology has strong Greek roots, it is by no means bound by these roots.

Verb-ing Nouns

In recent years, the Olympics have been a fantastic source of a common linguistic phenomenon (one of my personal favourites) in which nouns become verbs.


You may have heard that an Olympic athlete “was medalled,” or that they “will podium.” Some of these athletes beat others in their semi-finals in order “to final,” and in doing so, they might even have “PB-ed” (i.e., reached a new personal best). According to one source, even the Lord Coe, chairman of the Organizing Committee, once declared that the London Olympics needed “to legacy.”


This might sound odd, but the phenomenon of turning nouns into verbs is not at all new. Many commonplace verbs of today were once strictly nouns, such as “evidence,” “impact,” and “access.” In fact, many nouns have been verbed only in the last few decades, right in front of our eyes—think of “email,” “message,” “text,” and “bookmark.” These nouns were verbed so quickly that it’s difficult to remember a time in which we only nouned them.


(In case you haven’t noticed, I heart verbing nouns. In fact, if verbing nouns were a sport, I’d totally medal in the Grammar Olympics.)

Language and Society

So, next time you’re sitting at home watching the Olympics, keep your ears open for some of these Olympic linguistic idiosyncrasies—and embrace them! As Gore Vidal once wrote, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too.” The Olympic Games—both ancient and modern—are a great example of how language and society are deeply intertwined.