Word of the Month: Olympic Games

On the 13th of the month, the Olympic Games open in Athens Greece. It will be the 25th time the games have been held since the Olympics were revived in 1896. (Although it is the 28th modern Olympiad; three of the games were canceled during the two world wars.) In honor of the games and the athletes competing in them, our word of the month is Olympic Games, n.; originally games contested in honor of Zeus, held on the plain of Olympia in Greece every four to five years; the ancient games were first held ca.776 BC until they were abolished by Roman Emperor Theodosius in 394 AD; in modern use to denote the games established in 1896 by Baron de Coubertin.

What follows is an examination of words associated with the Olympics and Olympic sports.

agony, n.; anguish, pain; from the Greek agonia, meaning contest, struggle, ca.1386. The agon in ancient Greece were the spectators at games like the Olympics.

anchor, n.; from the Old English ancor, ultimately related to the Greek anc-, meaning bend or crook. The sense of the runner in the last leg of a relay race dates from 1934.

archery, n.; the skill and practice of using a bow and arrow, from the Old French archerie, before 1400. Archery was an Olympic medal sport from 1900 to 1920. It was reinstated in 1972.

athlete, n.; from the Latin athleta, ultimately from the Greek athletes, which in turn is from athlos, contest. In English use from 1528 to denote a participant in ancient games, from 1827 to denote modern participants in physical games and feats. The adjective athletic is from 1636. The noun athletics, denoting physical contests is from 1727. An obsolete form of the noun, athletic, is from 1605.

badminton, n.; a game similar to lawn tennis, played with shuttlecocks instead of balls, 1874; named after a town and estate in Gloucestershire, meaning the estate of a man named Baduhelm. An Olympic medal sport since 1992.

baseball, n.; a game popular in the United States where a batter hits a pitched ball and attempts to round a circuit of bases before being tagged with the ball by one of the nine defenders. The name of the game dates to 1744 and was used for various precursors of the modern game, the rules of which were codified in 1845. An Olympic medal sport since 1992.

basketball, n., game invented by James Naismith in 1892, where two teams of five compete to sink a ball into baskets hung ten feet high at either end of the court. Men’s basketball has been an Olympic sport since 1936, women’s since 1976.

bicycle, n. & v.; a two-wheeled vehicle powered by the rider, to ride a bicycle; adopted from French in 1868. The French word is a modern formation from the Latin bi-, two, and the Greek kuklos, wheel. The clipped form, cycling, has been in use since 1883. Cycling has been an Olympic sport since 1896.

box 1) n.; a blow from a fist; a Middle English word of unknown origin, ca.1385. Cognates in other Germanic languages are all borrowings from English. 2) v.; to hit with a fist; from the noun, 1519. 3) boxing, the sport of fighting with fists; 1711. Boxing has been an Olympic sport since 1904.

canoe, n. & v.; a small boat without a keel; 1555. From the Spanish canoa, ultimately from a native Haitian word. The verb meaning to paddle or propel a canoe is from 1842. Canoeing has been an Olympic sport since 1936.

Citius, Altius, Fortius, c.phr.; Latin phrase meaning faster, higher, stronger. The motto of the Olympic games since 1924.

decathlon, n.: an athletic contest of ten different track-and-field events; modern formulation from the Greek deca-, ten, and athlos, contest, 1912. The Olympic decathlon consists of the long jump, high jump, discus throw, shot put, javelin throw, 100 m race, 400 m race, 1,500 m race, 110 m hurdles, and the pole vault. The winner of the Olympic decathlon is dubbed “the world’s greatest athlete.”

discus, n.; a metal plate used in throwing competitions; from the Latin, ultimately from the Greek diskos.

dive, v.; to plunge into liquid; from two Old English verbs, dufan, meaning to duck or sink, and dyfan, to dip or submerge. Diving has been an Olympic sport since 1904.

dressage, n.; the discipline of training horses to perform precise movements; from the French, literally meaning training, 1936. Dressage has been an Olympic event since 1912.

épée, n.; a sword designed for thrusting; in competition, the same length as a foil, but heavier and stiffer. From the French word for sword, 1889.

equestrian, adj.; pertaining to horse riding; from the Latin eques meaning horseman, 17th century. Equestrian events have been competed at the Olympics since 1900.

eventing, n.; an equestrian competition that combines jumping and dressage; from one-, two-, or three-day event, 1965. Prior to 1952, Olympic competition in eventing was restricted to military officers.

fencing, n.; the art and discipline of swordmanship; a clipping of defence. The archaic noun fence dates to 1533 and the modern fencing is from 1581. The verb dates to 1598. Fencing has been an Olympic sport since 1896.

foil, n.; a light, flexible thrusting sword with a blunt point used for practice or competition; the word dates to 1594 and is of unknown origin. Possibly a reference to the blunted or “foiled” point or possibly from parrying or “foiling” an opponent’s thrust.

football, n.; a game where two teams attempt to kick a ball down a field to a goal at either end; from 1424. The modern game dates to 1863 when the English Football Association was created. Men’s football has been an Olympic sport since 1900, women’s since 1996.

Fosbury flop, n.; high-jumping technique in which the athlete attempts to clear the bar facing upwards, with back to the bar; after high-jumper Dick Fosbury who used the technique to win the gold medal in the 1968 Mexico City Games.

gymnasium, n.; a place to practice athletics; from the Latin and ultimately the Greek meaning literally to train while naked, 1598.

gymnastic, adj. & n.; from the Greek meaning skilled in athletics, this was the original English sense from 1574. The modern sense of gymnastics, meaning a set of exercises requiring strength and coordination, is from 1652. An Olympic sport since 1896.

handball, n.; a game between two teams of seven who throw, catch, and dribble a ball toward goals at either end the court. Men’s handball as been an Olympic sport since 1936; women’s since 1976.

heat, n.; originally a warm-up or practice race, now a race to qualify athletes for further competition; from the idea of warming up or getting hot, 1577. 

heptathlon, n.; an event comprising seven different athletic events; a modern formulation from the Greek hept-, seven, and athlos, contest, 1977. The constituent events in the Olympics are 100 m hurdles, long jump, high jump, 200 m race, shot put, javelin throw, and 800 m race. The Olympic heptathlon is a women’s event, the counterpart of the men’s decathlon. The heptathlon has been competed since 1984.

hippodrome, n.; a track for horses or chariot races; from the Greek hippo, horse, + dromus, race. In English use to refer to ancient race tracks since 1549.

hockey, n.; a game where two teams use sticks or clubs, curved at one end, to drive the ball toward goals at either end of the field; called field hockey in North America to distinguish it from ice hockey. Possibly from the Old French hoquet, meaning a shepherd’s crook, but early citations are lacking. Modern use of the word hockey dates to 1838. There is an isolated appearance of the word in the 16th C. Hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1908

hurdle, n.; a barrier across a racecourse that a runner must leap over, in plural form a footrace of this type; from the Old English hyrdel, a portable frame used for temporary fencing, in athletic usage since 1833

javelin, n., a light spear thrown by hand, now used primarily in athletic competition; from the French javeline, in English use from 1513.

judo, n.; martial art developed by Jigoro Kano in the 1880s; from the Japanese name for the sport, which in turn is derived from Chinese, jou, gentleness, and tao, way. Judo has been an Olympic sport since 1964.

jump the gun, c.phr.; to begin a race before the starter’s pistol is fired, metaphorically to begin any venture before one is supposed to; the phrase beat the gun/pistol has been in use since 1905. The switch to jump dates to at least 1942 and is American in origin.

kayak, n.; a small, covered boat allowing one or two passengers and propelled by a double-bladed paddle; from the Inuit qajaq; in English use from 1757. Kayaking has been an Olympic sport since 1936; women’s kayaking has been competed since 1948.

lap, v. & n.; to travel a single circuit of a racecourse, a single circuit of a racecourse, to pass a competing runner; from the sense meaning to fold or coil, from 1923 in the athletic sense.

marathon, n.; a running race of 26 miles, 385 yards (41.195 km), metaphorically any lengthy endeavor; in English use since the first modern Olympics in 1896; after a town on the Greek coast, the site of an Athenian victory over the Persians in 490 BC. The name of the modern race comes from the legend that a messenger ran the 22 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the victory, dying just after delivering the message. Sometimes the messenger is identified as Pheidippides, who Herodotus records as running the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta to secure aid before the battle.

Olympiad, n.; period of time between one ancient Olympic competition and the next; from the Greek; in English usage since at least 1387. In modern use to mean the modern Olympic competitions, 1896.

palaestra, n.; a wrestling practice arena, a gymnasium; from the Greek, in English use from 1412.

pentathlon, n.; an event comprising five athletic events; from the Greek penta-, five, + athlos, contest; the modern pentathlon event in the Olympics consists of pistol shooting, épée fencing, 200 m swim, equestrian show jumping, and a 3,000 m running race. Prior to the advent of the heptathlon in 1984, the pentathlon was also a women’s athletic event consisting of running, hurdles, long jump, high jump, and shot put.

ping pong, n.; table tennis; echoic from the sound of the ball striking the paddle, since 1900. Ping pong has been an Olympic event since 1988.

relay, n.; a type of running race between teams of athletes, usually four, each member running one leg of the race; this sense is in English use from 1898. In earlier use to mean a set of hounds and horses posted to continue a hunt for a deer when the first set is tired. From ca.1410, from the Old French relais.

row, v.; to propel a boat via oars; from Old English, c.950. Rowing has been an Olympic sport since 1896.

sabre, n.; a curved, cutting sword; from the French, 1680. The French word is an unexplained alteration of the German sable; the origin of the German word is unknown. It is saber in American spelling.

sail, v.; to propel a boat using wind power; from the Old English siälan, ca.893. Sailing has been an Olympic sport since 1900.

shoot, v.; to move swiftly, to rush, to send forth, to throw or propel, esp. missile or bullets from a firearm; from the Old English scéotan, a common Germanic root. Shooting has been an Olympic event since 1896.

shuttlecock, n.; the object volleyed back and forth in badminton, consisting of a cork ball with a tail of feathers; from shuttle, meaning dart, + cock, in reference to the feathers; in use from 1522.

skeet, n.; a form of clay pigeon shooting in which pigeons are projected at a variety of angles along a semicircular range; the name was an American invention in 1926, modeled after the Old English scéotan, to shoot.

soccer, n.; a name for football, esp. in the United States; formed from Assoc., short for Association Football, a name that distinguished it from rugby; 1889.

softball, n., a game similar to baseball, but played with a larger ball which is pitched to the batter underhanded. The name dates to 1926, although the sport is somewhat older. Softball has been a women’s Olympic sport since 1996.

sprint, v. & n.; to run a short-distance at full speed, a race of this type; from the Old Norse spretta, in dialectical English until the 1860s when it became standard.

stadium, n.; an ancient unit of linear measure of 600 Greek or Roman feet, a race and racecourse of this length; in English use from 1398. By 1603, the sense had transferred to the place of competition

steeplechase, n.; a cross-country race with obstacles such as fences and water jumps; originally a horseracing term, 1793, later applied to footraces, 1864. From the phrase to hunt the steeple, a horseracing game where riders would race to the nearest church steeple, 1785.

swim, v.; to move through water; from Old English. Swimming has been an Olympic event since 1896.

table tennis, n.; a game of tennis played with paddles and a small ball on top of a table; 1887. Table tennis has been an Olympic event since 1988.

taekwondo, n.; a Korean martial art characterized by kicking and punching; from tae, kick, + kwon, fist, + do, art. In English use since 1967. An Olympic event since 2000.

tennis, n.; a racquet sport where players volley the ball back and forth over a net; in English use since c.1400 to denote an early form of the game now known as real tennis or court tennis. The modern game was originally known as lawn tennis, 1874, and clipped to simply tennis by 1878. The origin of the name is not certain, but is probably from the French tenez, meaning prepare to receive, a call made by the server. Tennis was competed at the Olympics from 1896 to 1924. The sport returned to the Olympics in 1988.

track, n.; a racecourse, 1836; US term for athletics; a clipping of track and field, 1934. From the older sense meaning a trail, 1470, from the Old French trac.

track and field, n.; athletics, track denotes running events and field the throwing and jumping events; 1905.

trap, n.; a device for projecting a clay pigeon into the air, 1812; clay pigeon shooting in general; from the sense of a device used to catch animals; Old English treppe.

volleyball, n.; a sport where teams volley a ball over a high net, 1896; from the French volée, simultaneous discharge of missiles, late-16th C. An Olympic sport since 1964.

weightlifting, n.; sport where the competitors lift ever increasing weights, 1896. An Olympic event since that year.

western roll, n.; high jumping technique where the athlete takes off with the leg nearest the bar and rolls towards the bar, clearing it horizontally and face down; 1964.

wrestle, v.; to strive to throw an opponent to the ground by grappling and holding; from Old English. Wrestling has been an Olympic sport since 1896.

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