It’s Mardi Gras, or the “dense, shiny meat removal,” as I’ve etymologized in the past. I trust many observers people won’t be giving up TV for Lent, what with the Winter Olympics going on.
Speaking of the Olympics, ski down some archives with my old posts from the 2014 competition in Sochi, Russia. I explored the roots of winter sports words, including skate, ski, luge, sleigh, curling, and hockey. (Lots of Old Norse and origins unknown.) I also looked at the histories of the winning medals: gold, silver, and bronze. (Lots of Indo-European, with a surprising place-name behind bronze.)
The 2018 games kicked off last week in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and besides the astonishing athleticism, inspirational stories, and show of global unity, there’s some very exciting…yes,etymology.
Towering over the city, arms outstretched, is Christ the Redeemer. Built in the 1920s, this 100-foot statute of Jesus Christ is an icon of Rio de Janeiro and the 2016 Olympics Games it’s hosting. But if we were speaking the English of the Middle Ages, we’d be calling this monument by another, less pious-sounding name: Christ the Ransomer.
Latin had a verb, redimere, literally “to buy back.” The verb had a lot of purchasing power, so to speak, but one of its most basic meanings was “to buy the release of a slave from captivity.” As a verb, redimere joins red-, a combining form of re-, “back,” and emere, “to buy,” and takes a noun form of redemptio. This emere also yields many other English words, from assume, example, and exempt to premium, sample, and even vintage.
Now, redemptio underwent some changes in French, some obvious and some not-so-obvious. Through some serious smushing, redemptio became ransom. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites ransom as early as 1225, referring to “a sum of money paid for pardon from an offense.” By 1325, we see the modern sense of ransom (i.e., with respect to hostages). It’s right around this time when we also see redemption, then meaning, like its original Latin, “freeing a prisoner, captive, or slave by payment.” Redemption, as you can tell, experienced a much less dramatic evolution in French, coming into English from the Anglo-Norman redempcioun.
By the late 1300s and early 1400s, we see ransom and ransomer emerge as Christian theological terms: “deliverance from sin and damnation by Jesus Christ.” Redeem and redemptor appear by 1438. Redeemer, which form now prevails, is attested by 1475. French may have anticipated the eventual distinction between ransom and redemption, as redempcioun was first used for Jesus Christ’s spiritual redemption.
But why the monetary metaphor? In Christian belief, Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to save humanity from sin. We can understand this as a kind of transaction: He pays for humanity’s sins with his life, he releases mankind from the captivity of evil and damnation with the payment or concession of his life. They say money is the root of all evil. For Christians, money metaphors are apparently the root of all salvation, too.
Over the centuries, we stretched redeem out to its other familiar senses. By the late 1400s, redeem was signifying “to restore,” specifically “to a former, better state” by the late 1500s. The 17th century witnesses redeem “making amends.” It’s not until 1897, according to the OED, that redeem starts cashing in, say, coupons. The usage is American in origin.
Now, many economists question whether hosting the Olympic Games actually pays off. (Some might even say it’s a ransom payment for global attention.) But this summer, after political scandal, recession, and Zika, Brazil may not be looking for any monetary redemption per se. Instead, it may be looking up to its iconic Redeemer, and back to the history of the word, for a more metaphorical redemption – in the eyes of its people and in of the world. So far, it’s looking pretty auspicious for Rio 2016.
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.
Let the games begin! No, the quadrennial contest we call the US presidential election has long been underway. That other event occurring every four years, the summer Olympic Games, officially kicks off tonight in Rio de Janeiro.
As the games begin, where does “game” begin?
English has long been playing games. The word is found in several Old English texts, where it takes the form gamen and variously refers to “amusement,” “pleasure,” “enjoyment,” “sport,” and yes, even “lovemaking.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir Philip Sidney mentioned Olympian games in the 1580s. But over a decade later, a translation of the French Ieux Olympiques yielded “th’ Olympick games,” which has since prevailed. Earlier, Latin had Olympicum certāmen, and Greek, the language of those original contests in 776 BC, had Ὀλυμπικός ἀγών (Olympikos agon). Latin’s certāmen and Greek’s ἀγώνboth carry a sense of “struggle” or “contest.”
Over time, the Old English gamen shed its final -en, as it was likely confused as a suffix. Game is clearly Germanic in origin, with cognates in Old High German, Old Icelandic, Old Danish, and other old tongues. All these games share a sense of “something that causes delight and joy.”
But the deeper roots of game are, appropriately enough, contested. One theory is that game is related to the German gumpen, “to jump” or “hop,” whose ultimate source may denote some kind of vigorous, irregular movement (OED). The German gumpen might be the source of English’s own jump – another everyday word, first documented only in the 1500s, whose origin is also disputed.
Another theory looks to an extinct East Germanic language, Gothic, which had gaman. This gaman meant “partner” or “fellowship.” Some explain gaman as a compound: ga–, a prefix indicating collective nouns, plus man, “man,” rendering gaman as “together people.”
While this etymology may not win a gold medal, it certainly captures the spirit of the Olympics. The games bring world-class athletes together and promote worldwide unity –people, together, a welcome event in this otherwise overly-eventful summer.