Word Stories: The Olympics by English with Stephen

Word Stories: The Olympics

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about the origins of words associated with the Olympics.

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Hello everyone! My name’s Stephen Green and this is my podcast called English with Stephen. As regular listeners know, the objective of this podcast is to give you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

I don’t know about you, but I am a big sports fan. To be honest, I like most sports, even ones I don’t really understand. At the time of recording, the Tokyo Olympics are going on, so having a few weeks of hundreds of different sports on the TV to watch is kind of heaven for me. At least it would be if I didn’t have to work as well.

Work always gets in the way of my social life!

And then there is Covid playing havoc with everything.

Anyway, I thought today I could talk about the origins and meanings of some of the words associated with the Olympics.

After this short break.

Before we start, I’d like to tell you about an interview I recently did with an Indian woman called Ishani Gupta. She has a really interesting youtube channel devoted to how you can improve your public speaking. Speaking in public isn’t just talking in front of thousands of people, it can be giving a presentation at work, talking in front of your classmates, or thanking friends at a party. Ishani looks at things that will help you with all of this, as well as realising that a lot of people need help with their English. Take a moment to check her youtube channel. It is called Ishani Gupta 92. I will post a link on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.

So, let’s start with the most obvious word, which is “Olympics”. As most people know, the original Olympics were a Greek idea and, so it follows, the word “Olympics” comes from ancient Greece. Mount Olympus is a mountain in Greece where the Greek gods were supposed to live. There was also a town in Greece called Olympia which had a huge temple to Zeus, who was the King of the gods and ruled from Olympus. As well as the temple, the town of Olympia also held large athletic events in honour of Zeus, and so the games eventually became known as Olympics.

This year, the Olympics are being held in Tokyo, the capital of Japan. The word “Tokyo” means “East Capital”. “To” meaning “East” and “Kyo” meaning capital. Tokyo became the capital of imperial Japan in the 1860s and before that, it was called “Edo” which means estuary because of its position at the mouth of the Sumida River.

Ok, so now onto some of the sports that are the whole reason for the Olympics. There are lots of obvious ones: football, basketball, and handball are all self-explanatory. But there are others that are much more interesting.

Obviously, many of the names have Greek origins, due to the Greek origins of the Olympics as we have already mentioned. For example, “Athlon” was the Greek for “competition”. From that noun, we got the verb “athlein” which meant to try to win a prize, and then “athletes” which described a person trying to win a prize in a fight. Today, the word lives on in English and many other languages as “athlete” to describe any contestant at the Olympics, but especially those involved in “athletics” or the events like running and jumping that are also called “track and field”.

Another Greek word is “gymnastics”, but this word has changed a lot over the years. Originally, the word was “gymnos” and it meant “naked” because the first Greek athletes competed with no clothes on. Obviously, today it has acquired a different meaning to describe the activities performed, often with ropes and bars, to demonstrate the strength and control that the “gymnast” has.

The last Olympics saw the first appearance of rugby at the Olympics. It is a special type of rugby called Rugby Sevens because there are, well, only seven players unlike the normal 15. This makes it a very fast, open game that is much easier to understand that the original game. I thoroughly recommend you try watching the rugby sevens, you won’t be disappointed. The word “rugby” is actually the name of a town in England. There is a famous school there and, in Victorian times, they had a different type of football. Many schools around England played their own versions of football. The one in Rugby School became very popular and so kept the name of “rugby”.

Another sport that is named after a place is badminton. British soldiers picked up the game when they were fighting in India and brought it back to England. The first place it was played in England was at a big aristocrat’s house called “Badminton House”, and so the name stuck.

Another racquet sport, and one we covered a couple of weeks ago in the episode on the word “court” is tennis. Now, the origin of the word “tennis” is disputed, but the story I like is that it comes originally from the French “tenez” which meant “to hold” or “to receive”. The idea is that the person who was serving would shout this just before he hit the ball to make sure the other person was ready to receive the serve.

One sport that I don’t think should be in the Olympics is golf. The top players don’t really seem to care about being in the Olympics and there are more important tournaments for them to win. The word “golf” comes from the Scottish word “gouf”, which probably came from the Dutch word “cauf” and referred to the stick or club that you use to hit the ball. You might hear a story that the word “golf” is an acronym and that the letters stand for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden”. Now, while golf does have a problem with women playing the game this story is definitely not true. In fact, if somebody tells you that a word was originally an acronym for something, it is probably a lie.

Let’s move away from European words and take a look at the words “canoe” and “kayak”. The word “canoe” comes from the island of Haiti in the Caribbean. It was originally used to describe a tree that had a hole dug into the middle. A person could then sit in this hole and travel along rivers. Similarly, “kayak” was originally an Eskimo word and was used to describe a light boat that had seal skins stretched over a wooden frame.

One of the strangest sports for me in the Olympics is fencing. You know, the sport that looks like they are sword fighting. As a kid, I could never understand what the connection was between a fence you might have around your garden and fighting someone with a sword. Well, my young self need worry no more. “Fence” originally meant something like “to defend yourself”, and so the sport of fencing is the art of defending yourself with a sword. The idea of putting up fences around your property was a defensive one because it would stop other people or animals entering your land. So there is a connection, then.

Boxing was also a sport whose name confused me as a kid. What could the connection possible be between a box and fighting? Well, unfortunately, I cannot find any link between the fight and the container. The word for the fight seems to come from Old Dutch and it meant “to hit” someone. It is easy to see how it acquired its contemporary meaning from this.

As the games are taking place in Japan, it is perhaps a good idea for the final sport to be a Japanese one. Judo literally means “the gentle way”, with ‘”ju” meaning “gentle” and “do” meaning “way”. Apparently, both elements of the word originated in Chinese, but this gentle martial art is most definitely Japanese to my mind.

I know there are a lot more fascinating words and word stories from the Olympics. If you are still listening 3 years in the future, perhaps we can look at some other great Olympian stories.

Please, do not forget that you can find a transcript to this podcast on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, that S T E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com. You can also find all of the past episodes on my site, as well as a link to the great youtube channel I mentioned earlier from Ishani Gupta.

Thank you so much for listening. I hope to speak to you again next week.

Look after yourself!


  1. OMG!! So many great and new info for me!! I love your work!! It is extremely interesting and educating. Keep it up!!

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