Visit theallusionist.org/olympics to read more about and hear this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, pass the linguistic baton.
Coming up in today’s show: Olympic etymology. Or, the Etymolympics, if portmanteauing is one of the events.
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1. I’m doing the first live Allusionist at the London Podcast Festival at 4.30pm on 24th September, get your tickets via the link at theallusionist.org/live
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On your marks, get set, go on with the show.
[in the commentary box at the Olympic stadium]
HELEN ZALTZMAN: Welcome back to the EtymOlympics, where the meaning of sport is the sport.
MATTHEW CROSBY: And of course, sport itself, from the French ‘desporter’, used to mean an amusing and fun pastime.
HZ: That’s right, Matthew. Something to remember, football fans. Supposed to be fun.
MC: That meaning was 700 years ago though. A lot has changed in 700 years. Look how much easier it is nowadays to get a soy latte.
HZ: And there's a very excited crowd out there
MC: I can only describe the atmosphere as electric.
HZ: That's because sports commentators can only describe atmospheres as electric.
MC: It's the only adjective I ever learnt.
HZ: And you can hear the roar of the spectators out there in the stadium, στάδιον in Ancient Greek originally a unit of measurement, a fixed length of a racecourse. The original track at Olympia, for the first recorded Olympic games in 776BC, was one stadium in length.
MC: So when they were building this stadium they said, “Oh, build it the length of a stadium,” and the builders would go, “So how long’s the stadium?” and they’d say, “It’s one stadium long.”
HZ: Actually, Matthew, a stadion was a 600ft running race, according to the historian Herodotus.
MC: I hate to contradict you, Helen, but I think you’ll find that celebrity labourer Hercules walked 200 steps and called it a stadion.
HZ: Was that one of his twelve labours?
MC: It was the album track of the twelve labours of Hercules.
HZ: Here’s another fact for you, Matthew, if we use the term ‘fact’ to mean ‘piece of historical information over which there is much conjecture’ -
MC: - fact, yeah...
HZ: Allegedly, the stadion, the 600ft running race, was the only event at the first thirteen Olympic Games.
MC: BORing! I only started watching when they got beach volleyball.
HZ: Volleyball, from Latin ‘volare’, to fly, and ball, from Old English ‘beal’, a round object, which came from the Proto-Indo-European root ‘bhel’, to inflate or swell.
MC: I certainly swell when I’m watching...ahem...heh.....Oh - and out on the track, we can see the men lining up for the 110m hurdles. Hurdles, of course, having come a long way since their Proto-Germanic form, ‘hurdiz’, a frame made of wicker. We’re not going to see any wickerwork out there today.
HZ: Yes, it’s not your grandma’s hurdles.
MC: Old English ‘Hyrd’, with a Y instead of the U we’re so accustomed to today, that meant a door. So a ‘hyrdle’ was a diminutive, a little door.
HZ: That was a low patch for this event, when athletes had to crawl through a series of miniature doors.
MC: Less elegant, but no less challenging.
HZ: Of course, today, as we’ve come to expect, they will be vaulting gracefully over each hurdle. In Old English terminology, that’s a barrier made out of intertwined twigs.
MC: And they’re off - and we’re seeing quite a lot of injuries straight out of the blocks, the twigs on those hurdles ripping open the athletes’ shins, blood is literally on the tracks.
HZ: But they are pushing on through, so close and - oh, looks like we’ve got a dead heat! While the adjudicators check the replay to see who crossed the line first, I must reassure viewers that neither athlete is actually dead.
MZ: Yes, important to note. The ‘dead’ in this context means absolute, merely an allusion to the finality of death.
HZ: It certainly is, Matthew. Has been ever since 1660.
MC: I think you’ll find the finality of death has been around a little longer than that. That’s a very long-running trope.
HZ: I meant that particular sense of the word ‘dead’ has been in use since at least 1660, but thank you for pointing out that syntax is hard.
MC: While we’re still waiting to hear the result of that dead heat, let’s take a look at where that ‘heat’ came from - late 14th century, that ‘heat’ would have been a single intense burst of effort. Just like our runners put in, out on the track there.
HZ: Or it may have evolved from an expression in the 1570s, a heat, the run you’d give a horse to limber them up for a race.
MC: Again, we must clarify for the viewers: the runners were running in a heat, they were not on heat.
HZ: I dunno, I’ve heard a lot of rumours about what goes on in the Olympic Village after hours.
MC: A little nod and a wink to the namesake of the Olympics, the Olympian deities, who lived up Mount Olympus, the tallest mountain in mainland Greece, and got up to all sorts.
HZ: They used to be such a big deal; any idea what happened to them?
MC: They were disqualified from international competition. Doping, and some pretty horrible sex scandals.
HZ: ‘Swans will be swans’ is not a defence.
[down on the running track]
HZ: I’m trackside with Lex Lazarus, winner of the pentathlon. How does it feel?
LEX: [panting] It feels like I just had to do fencing, swimming, show-jumping, shooting, and then a big run. Nobody told me there were FIVE events.
HZ: Well, the clue’s in the word 'pentathlon', 'pente' is Ancient Greek for five.
LEX: I have to be the world’s best at doing fencing, swimming, show-jumping, shooting, and then a big run. Do you think I have time to learn how to count in Ancient Greek?
HZ: Well, luckily that isn’t one of the five events, and now you’ll be receiving an EtymOlympic gold medal.
LEX: I had to do five events. Give me five medals.
HZ: I certainly would if I could.
LEX: If you’re going with the ancient Greek, ‘athlon’ meant prizes, so I want five prizes.
HZ: I thought you just said you didn’t know Ancient Greek. You didn’t have time to learn how to count in Ancient Greek.
LEX: I know Ancient Greek, I just can’t count.
HZ: Oh, and it looks like Lex Lazarus has to go off for the mandatory post-competition urine test. He may be gone for some time.
[back in the studio]
HZ: Emotions, of course, running high at the EtymOlympics. Careers being made, dreams coming true.
MC: Especially that dream where you’re in your underwear and you’re running and everyone’s shouting at you.
HZ: That old favourite! Here’s a fun fact for you: 'athlete', like 'pentathlon' and 'triathlon' and all those words, comes from the Ancient Greek verb ‘athlein’, to compete for a prize. But before we were calling them athletes, in Old English the word was plegmann, ‘playman’.
MC: Sounds like a grown-up GameBoy.
HZ: Or a more mature version of Playboy, featuring older ladies.
MC: There is no need for that.
HZ: Oh, and it’s just been brought to my attention that out there on the track, the women’s steeplechase is already under way, and in fact has been for the past six and a half minutes.
MC: Whoops! I didn’t even see the steeples being set up.
HZ: Sadly no steeples any more, Matthew; that was just back when the race was named, contestants had to run towards a distant church steeple which was how they knew where the finish line was.
MC: Well, they could still do that here. They put out the water jumps and barriers, why not a steeple or two?
HZ: It’s a good question.
MC: You know what modern athletics needs? More props. Take a cue from crazy golf. Now THAT is a sport.
HZ: It certainly is. And that’s it for today’s events, but please join us again tomorrow for the gymnastics.
MC: If we were watching the gymnastics in ancient Greece, they’d all be naked. It’s right there in the word we still use today: gymnastics, from the Greek γυμνός, meaning naked. And imagine if gymnasts competed naked today!
HZ: I think we’re all imagining that now.
MC: It is a vivid mental image.
HZ: Albeit not respectful or appropriate.
MC: Think of the ratings, though.
HZ: I certainly will.
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This episode was produced by Cheeka Eyers, Devon Taylor and me, Helen Zaltzman. It guest starred Matthew Crosby, who you can hear on the podcasts Pappy’s Bangers and Mash and Flatshare Slamdown, and Sam Pay, of Song By Song podcast. The music is by Martin Austwick.
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Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
comity, noun: 1. An association of nations for their mutual benefit.
Too soon, dictionary.
2. Formal: courtesy and considerate behaviour towards others.
Try using it in an email today.
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And now we have reached the finish line.