Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 58: It's Greek to Us

More than 10,000 athletes from around the world are gathering in Beijing in the People's Republic of China to convene the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, so this week on Grammar Grater, we're going to talk about words related to the Olympics.

One word everyone will hear a lot is the word Olympiad.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the complete background on that one. Olympiad is named for Mount Olympus, which, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, is the highest peak in Greece, measuring 9,570 ft or 2,917 m. Olympus is in the district of Elis site of the ancient Olympic games.

Those ancient Olympic games marked each timespan known as an Olympiad. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that an Olympiad is "a period of four years reckoned from one celebration of the Olympic games to the next, by which the ancient Greeks computed time."

In 1882, Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott referenced Olympiads in their book, A Greek-English Lexicon (7th edition):
"The first Olympiad began 776 B.C.; the 293rd and last in 393 A.D."

A related word worth mentioning is the word quadrennial, which is an adjective that refers to events that last four years, or to events that happen every four years. Thus the Olympic Games are a quadrennial event. And that brings us to the current and most popular definition of Olympiad, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, "A quadrennial celebration of the modern Olympic Games revived in 1896."

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) declares in its Olympic Charter that "The Olympiads are numbered consecutively from the first Games of the Olympiad celebrated in Athens in 1896." Thus this year's Games in Beijing are the Games of the 29th Olympiad.

Meanwhile, the word Olympic is defined as an adjective that refers to the games of the Olympiad. It's also used in hyphenated combinations with other words to create adjectives "with reference to the Modern Olympic Games, such as Olympic-size, -sized, -style." For example:
The city just opened a brand-new Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The Oxford English Dictionary also explains that the word Olympics, a plural noun, refers to "an Olympic Games in the modern era." By 1928, this definition of the word Olympics was already appearing in Funk's Standard Dictionary.

Not surprisingly, there are other sporting-related words that have Greek roots. For instance, the Greek word athlon meaning a prize or contest, eventually gave us the words athlete and athletics.

What's interesting about the word athletics is that, in the UK, athletics refers specifically to track and field events, whereas in North America, athletics refers to all physical sports and games generally.

The word decathlon is also derived from Greek. The decathlon is a 10-event athletic contest consisting of the 100-meter, 400-meter, and 1500-meter runs, the 110-meter high hurdles, the javelin and discus throws, shot put, pole vault, high jump and long jump.

The Greek roots deca- meaning "ten" and athlon meaning "contest" were merged to give us decathlon. This word was originally coined in French and quickly made its way into English.

Probably the strangest sporting etymology is for the word gymnastics, which—as Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary points out—derives from Greek words meaning "exercising while naked."

Thankfully clothing was added during the development of the modern sport.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; Encyclopaedia Britannica; the Web site of the International Olympic Committee; the Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee, Fowler's Modern English Usage by R.W. Burchfield; and Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.

Music from this Episode: "Holiday" and "Whisper" by The Hopefuls; "Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" by Parliament; "Olympic Flame" by Tiesto.

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