We’ve witnessed some history-making medals at Rio 2016. Fiji won their first ever medal – the gold – in rugby. Simone Manuel became the first black woman to take gold in an individual swimming event. And Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, has added to the distinction, now with 22 career golds.
But what is the history of this word for these top Olympic prizes, medal?
English has been winning medals since the late 1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites medal in 1578, used as a personal trinket. Soon after, we see medals cast in commemoration of important persons, for instance, and in honor of distinguished soldiers. The OED attests the meritorious medal in 1751: “Gold medals” awarded, as it will surely please word nerds, for studying Greek.
Medal comes to English from the French medaille, stamped from the Italian medaglia and the Latin medalia before it. The original meaning? “Half a denarius,” a common silver coin in ancient Rome. Etymologists trace medalia back to mediala, “little halves.” The root here is medium, the Latin for “middle,” which is from a common Indo-European base, *medhyo-, signifying the same. For the connecting sense, think of half as “split down the middle.”
The scrap value of an Olympic gold medal is $501. (The historic value of many medals, of course, can top $1 million.) But how much was medal’s etymological namesake, the denarius, worth? For the Romans, a denarius was a day’s wage for a skilled laborer. The exact amount is difficult to estimate, but guesses center on about $24’s worth of bread, making a medalia $12, of course. Today, this is roughly $88 for the average American.
In spite of their etymological – or actual – value, Olympic medals are anything but middling.