Word Stories - July 5, 2024 - 4 min

Terms of Engagement

The cultural roots of sports and sporting events reach a lot deeper than mere entertainment. For millennia, public games have also played key parts in civic and sacred life. The Olympic Games that were celebrated for centuries in ancient Greece, for example, served as a global arena for politics, high culture, and the all-important cult of Zeus.

A lot has changed over the centuries, of course, but sporting events still provide a very public stage for the high drama of tragedy and triumph. This Word Stories instalment shines a spotlight on the long pedigrees of some common words related to athletic effort and competition.


In mainstream Greek mythology, Zeus and the rest of the twelve Panhellenic gods made their home on Mount Olympus and were therefore known as the Olympic gods or the Olympians (ancient Greek Olumpioi). For centuries, English writers have carried on this tradition of talking about the Olympic gods (E. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1590), the Olympian gods (J. Skelton, Bibliotheca Historica, 1487), or simply the Olympians (R. L. Sheil, Evadne, 1819).

In everyday English, the adjective Olympic is more commonly associated with the international sporting events known as the Olympic Games, and Olympians are the athletes who represent their homelands in those games. The connection in this case to Mount Olympus is much less direct. The original Olympic games were Panhellenic competitions, named for the region of Greece that hosted them every four years: Olympia. Mount Olympus itself was many miles away, but the area was called Olympia because it was sacred to Zeus, the chief Panhellenic Olympian. Educated English speakers followed precedent by calling these ancient games the Olympic games (G. Markham, Deuoreux, 1597) or the Olympics (R. Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621), and the competitors involved were accordingly called Olympians (W. Shakespeare, Troilus & Cressida, 1609).

When the long-extinct Greek competitions were reimagined as travelling international events at the turn of the 20th century, these terms were revived as ways to talk about the modern incarnation of the Olympics. One related term that has taken on a noticeably different meaning over the years is Olympiad. In Hellenistic Greek and then Imperial Latin, an Olympias (genitive root Olumpiad-) was either a particular celebration of the games or its associated four-year period. English followed suit at first, using Olympiad to refer to the time when the Olympic games are running (J. Skelton, Bibliotheca Historica, 1487), as well as each four-year period between particular games (J. Lydgate, Life of Our Lady, 1450). In the modern world, though, the Olympic schedule has never been a common way of keeping track of the years, so when people say an Olympiad or the Olympiad today, they’re referring to the games.


When people talk about enjoying spectator sports at an arena, a sea of sand is probably one of the last things they expect to see. The word arena is nevertheless a direct link between modern sports venues and the “sand” (ancient Latin harena/arena) that covered the ground at places like the Colosseum or the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome. Sandy floors were very practical when it came to soaking up messes like blood from violent games, or urine from charioteers’ horses. The vast sand surfaces could also be quite spectacular in the sun, especially if the games’ organizers splurged on coloured sand or added glittering mica.

When educated English speakers picked up the Latin word arena, they used it in the old Roman way to refer to these sandy floors prepared for ancient public games (G. Hakewill, Apologie, 1627). In time, arena came by metaphorical extension to mean a “battlefield” (T. Chalmers, A Series of Discourses, 1817), or even more generally any highly visible public stage (T. R. Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, 1817). This last metaphorical sense is still widely used today in discussing the kind of competition that happens in the arena of public opinion or the arena of political debate. In a more literal vein, the word was also extended to include the whole building that hosted spectator events. This wider sense now dominates, and in fact arena no longer refers in modern English to the game surface itself. When sports fans are said to shake the arena with cheers, for example, the structure of the entire venue is imagined to be vibrating—not just the area where the games are being played (Lord Byron, Childe Harold, 1812).


In ancient Greek, an athlos was a competition and an athlon was a prize. The derivative verb athlein accordingly meant “to compete (for a prize)”. Adding the nominal suffix -ētēs produced the ancient Greek noun athlētēs, meaning “one who competes (in individual sports)”. This is the word that inspired the Imperial Latin athleta, the French athlète, and eventually the English athlete, all of which carried similar connotations (as seen, for example, in the English version of Guy de Chauliac’s Grande Chirurgie, 1425).

For a while at least, the English athlete could also be used to mean “a competitor” in general (A. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759), and the modern coinage mathlete—a person who trains to win math competitions—reconnects athlete with such wider connotations of competitive energy (The Times Recorder, June 1933). The word’s most dominant and consistent associations have nevertheless always been physical: athletes are assumed by English speakers to engage, like the athlētēs of ancient Greek culture, in demanding sports activities. The only major change over the centuries has been a widening of the categories involved: a modern athlete may or may not compete in an individual sport. English uses the same term for people who participate seriously in team sports, as well as people who work hard at “sporty” activities like climbing or running without doing it competitively.


In everyday English, a medal is a shiny metal award worn on a ribbon, and the specific metals involved are often significant (gold for first place in a contest, silver for second place, bronze for third place, and so on). The close phonetic resemblance between medal and metal is nevertheless merely a coincidence. The word medal is etymologically related to middle, not metal. In classical Latin, medius meant “middle” or “half”, and in Late Latin the derivative adjective medialis (“pertaining to the middle”) gave rise to the noun medalia—a name for a coin worth half a Roman denarius. In later Italian, the same coin was called a medaglia, but the name was extended to refer to the kinds of commemorative coins that sometimes served as souvenirs or royal gifts. The French derivation médaille accordingly referred to both coins and coin-shaped trophies, and when the word finally passed into English as medal, it understandably referred to a souvenir or an award shaped like a coin (H. Wotton, Courtlie Controuersie, 1578). Because such medals could be bestowed as signs of honour (G. Puttenham, Arte of English Poesie, 1589), the term soon picked up the meaning it still carries: medals are awarded to recognize either bravery in war or victory in competitions (G. Berkeley, Letters, 1751).

The English word medallion comes from the same roots. A large medaglia coin was called a medaglione in Italian (thanks to the augmentative suffix -ione that evokes remarkable size), and English followed suit at first in distinguishing between “medalls and medallions” based on size (T. Browne, Garden of Cyrus, 1658). Over time, though, English lost this distinction, and people tend instead to distinguish between medallions (coin-shaped objects and jewelry) and medals (coin-shaped awards for merit). For this reason, to medallion something means to decorate it with coin shapes (W. Colton, Three Years in California, 1850), whereas to medal someone means to give them a coin-shaped award or prize (W. M. Thackeray, Cornhill Magazine, 1860). English also developed an intransitive verbal form: to medal in a contest such as the Olympic Games means “to earn a medal” (T. Lyman, Letters, 1865).

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