We’re counting down to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea which begin on February 8th.
The rules and the terminology of the upcoming events are often unfamiliar to fans whose exposure to these sports occurs every four years when they're televised during the Olympic Games. This makes it the perfect time to brush up on the obscure lingo of the athletic spectacle that will captivate the world for seventeen days.
Take curling, for example. American viewers are notoriously confused by curling because it can be painfully slow and has seemingly incomprehensible rules. Another example is skeleton, a recent addition to the Games. Skeleton, to the casual viewers, appears to lack rules altogether, consisting as it does of hurling yourself head-first down a track of ice as fast as possible on the flimsiest of sleds. (The event is called “skeleton” because the first metal sleds used resembled skeletons. Pretty “bare bones.”) Nothing makes you feel as safe and cozy in your own home as watching somebody fling themselves down an icy surface at speeds of over 120 miles per hour.
Along with the rules, of course, comes the jargon associated with each sport. Here are the stories behind the terms used in some of the Winter Olympic events.
Why Curling is called Curling?
First, let’s address the name of that most-mocked of Winter Olympic sports, curling. Curling is played on ice and involves gliding weights, called “stones,” toward a target. The frozen droplets of water on the ice interfere with the straight path of the curling stone and cause that path to “curl.” The “sweepers” on a curling team sweep the ice to precisely control where the curling stone ends up.
What's a lutz, anyway?
The most popular event of the Winter Games is certainly figure skating, which combines grace, artistry, and sheer athleticism. You have to be a dedicated viewer of the sport to know the difference between the types of lifts, spins and jumps the skaters perform, and the names of these elements do not offer many clues. That’s because many of the terms used in this sport are eponymous, meaning they are named after people, usually the people who invented or popularized a particular maneuver. Even if you know the technical difference between a triple lutz and a triple salchow, you may not know where the terms originated. A lutz is named after Alois Lutz, an Austrian skater who first performed the jump. The salchow is named after Swedish skater Ulrich Salchow. And if you thought the axel in the triple axel jump is the axle popular from wheels and gears, that’d be a logical guess but an incorrect one, nonetheless. It is spelled “a-x-e-l” and named after the Norwegian who first performed the jump, Axel Paulsen.
Who put the bob in bobsled?
There differences between luge, bobsled and the aforementioned skeleton events boil down to the type of sled used. All three are based the sport of toboggan. The toboggan is a flat-bottomed sled that gets its name from an Algonquian language, probably the Maliseet thapaken or the Micmac tobagun, “drag made of skin.” The luge is a sled you lie down in, feet first. The name luge is taken from a Swiss dialect, which derived the word from Medieval Latin sludia, “sled.” A bobsled is called that because the sled itself originally rested on hanging bags called bobs. Bobs got their name from their resemblance to clusters of short hair, such as you would find on the short tail of a horse. This makes the bob in bobsled the same bob as the bob in “bells on bobtails ring” from the song “Jingle Bells.”
Much skiing terminology comes from Norwegian. The word ski itself comes from a Norwegian word cognate with old English scid, which meant “stick of wood.” Also Norwegian in origin is the term slalom from Norwegian slalam, which translates literally as “sloping track” and means “skiing race”. The term mogul from the skiing event involving elevated bumps on the ski slope is Scandinavian in origin as well, as found in the Norwegian word muga for “heap or mound”. This mogul bears no relation to the mogul of English which means “powerful, successful rich person,” and comes from an Arabic root. Downhill skiing is also called alpine skiing, which means “of the Alps”. Cross-country skiing, which involves a different way of attaching the boot to ski, is also called nordic skiing. Nordic means “of or pertaining to the north” through nord, a word French borrowed from Old English.
Hockey takes its name from the shape of the stick used to play the game. One possible source is Old French hoc, which meant “hook” and a diminutive in Middle French hoquet, which referred to a shepherd’s crook, which looked a bit like a modern day hockey stick. Also shrouded in some etymological mystery is the origin of puck, like the one one used in ice hockey. One theory suggests that it is related to the verb poke, through the idea of pushing or poking the puck down the ice. Another theory holds that puck is related to an Irish word for bag, poc.
For two weeks every four years, the Winter Olympic Games offer casual observers on couches all over the world a passport to another country and a glimpse into the world of elite athletes and their sports. Knowing the lingo of these events brings a little more understanding and, we hope, a little more enjoyment to watching the games.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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