Olympic Etymology

Whether a man or a woman, sports are a huge part of our lives. Men spend hours on edge, money and time to be the first to know of a result or an outcome and to be there on their team’s side; some women too, while others, take it to heart… Regardless to what sport is to us, it is there and we here too must acknowledge it!
The word Olympic comes from the Greek Olympia, a town in Elis, ancient Greece, holding the athletic contests in honor of Olympian Zeus. Olympiad, the noun, represented a time period of four years and was used as a unit in computing time.
My initial purpose was to etymologically trace each and every Olympic sport, and provide you with some further info on the summer games (I researched- there are people who enjoy both sports and language!) however, many names provided very little etymological interest and had to be dropped for readers’ sake.
The following entries are the ones I found to be more interesting than others, some are actually very interesting.
Also added are English and American English idioms, coming from the world of sports- and we never knew it!
In light of the Olympics theme with this one, the given idioms are from a sport played at the Olympic Games- boxing.

[button color=”green” size=”big” link=”” target=”blank” ]Cilck Here to Download the Olypics Etymology[/button]

The Triathlon is a multi-sport event typically featuring cycling, swimming and running. This one is a Greek term compounded of tri surprisingly meaning three, and Athlon, meaning contest.

The Pentathlon, like the triathlon, is a multi-sport event first documented in ancient Greece consisting of long jump, javelin throw, discus throw, stadion (a short foot race) and wrestling, but this is no longer the case. The pentathlon was modified by Pierre de Coubertin (father of modern Olympics) to feature 19th century skills wich were thought to be useful at times of war- shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrian and cross country running. The word is another Greek term compounded of pente, meaning five, and athlon- competition.  

Tennis was the favorite sport of the medieval French knights; the original version of the game included no racquet while the players had to strike the ball with the palms of their hands. The game was originally called La Pulme, simply meaning palm but the players’ service cry, tenetz, eventually identified the game. Tenetz, meaning hold, receive, or take, was naturally shouted by the server to his opponent.

Table tennis, colloquially referred to as Ping Pong, originated in 1880 Britain, and was played by the upper class as an after dinner parlour game (imagine that!). The name Ping Pong was coined in 1900 as a trademark by the Parker Brothers manufacturing the needed equipment. Nothing special stands behind this name, but the imitative sound of the light ball.

Badminton was picked up by British officers in Poona, India. The game was first played in 1874 at the Badminton House, the Gloucesteshite estate of the duke of Beaufort, and hence the name.

Rugby too, as it turns out, originates in England. First played in 1864 in the Rugby Public School where its name was attested.

Handball, football and basketball are self-explanatory terms, consisting of the body part or object the games are played with, and- a ball! It is interesting to note that the old words did not only represent body parts, but also qualities. Hond, the old word for hand, also represented power, control and possession. ‘Foot’ comes from the Old English fot, representing exactly what it is, but funny enough- “my foot!” was first used in 1923 as a euphemism for “my ass!”. No one really knows where the word basket comes from, although the internet does offer some suggestions (none accepted by the OED).

Hockey is an interesting name; although its origin is rather obscure, it is believed to be related to the Middle French word hoquet representing a shepherd’s staff or crook, or from the French hoc meaning hook both drawing upon the hockey clubs’ resemblance to shepherds’ staves. It is interesting to note that prior to the French suggestion, dating back to 1838, the word was previously recorded in 1527 in Ireland and in 1363 England with no evident records in the years between. As curved-sticks-and-sorts-of-ball games are recorded throughout the world and centuries, the origins to the game are as obscure as the origin of the word.

Golf is first recorded in the 1457, together with fut-ball, in a Scottish statue on forbidden games. These two games were then forbidden for taking concentration away from fencing, a military need, and later on forbidden again for not being profitable. According to a very common myth, the word golf is an acronym for gentlemen only ladies forbidden, but as most myths- this one too is false. The word stems from the Scottish gouf meaning stick, a club or a bat. The true origins of the game are not known (see hockey) but the way it is played nowadays, among 18 holes, is definitely a Scottish invention.

Canoe or kayak will provide us with an interesting etymological entry. The word canoe, dated back to the 1550’s, was used by the known Columbus, as a Haiti loanword- canaoua, representing rough or dugout boats. The word kayak originates in the Eskimo qauaq which is literally- a small boat of skins. Umiak, if you want to know, is a large open skin boat.     

Gymnastics, should, as it appears, be performed naked. Why? Because this word originates in the Latin gymnos, simply meaning naked. In the 1590’s the word gymnasium came about as a place of exercise or school of gymnastics.

Equestrian games made their first appearance in the 1900 summer Olympics in Paris and include dressage, eventing and jumping. These games (as well as the relevant part in the pentathlon) are the only ones with animal participants, with horses being as much athlets as the riders are. Both individual and group medals are awarded with these games and both men and women can equally participate. The name is derived from the Latin adjective equester meaning of a horseman or a knight. Latin equus is simply a horse.   

Judo is a Japanese term, compounded of ju meaning softness or gentleness and do, standing for art or way. Judo is a refined form of ju-jitsu that was introduced in 1882 by Dr. Jigoro Kano who implemented principles of movement and balance to be practiced as sports or

Boxing Idioms- We are using it, so we may as well know why.

Come out fighting or come out swinging

In boxing, this saying basically means to fight till you die. Using it in real life, we refer to a situation in which we automatically go for offence, defending beliefs or  ideas strongly and pre-emptively.

Down and out

 A boxer who is “down” has been knocked to the canvas, and one who is also “out” is unconscious or unable to resume the fight; thus a down-and-out boxer is utterly defeated. In reality this idiom means lacking money or prospects; penniless or destitute.

Down for the count, out for the count

Refers to a boxer being knocked down; the referee will count off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight. Down for the count may imply a temporary setback, as down does not necessarily imply out. AHDI dates “down for the count” to the 1920’s. In reality, this one simply means to be defeated.


An opening system that involves a pawn sacrifice to gain the initiative right from the start. The term arrives in modern parlance through chess, but originates in wrestling from the Italian gambetto, tripping the opponent. OED cites the chess usage to 1656, the figurative usage to 1855. In real life this noun represents a stratagem or a tactic.

Glass jaw

In boxing, a fighter who is especially vulnerable or susceptible to a knockout is said to have a glass jaw. This idiom stands for vulnerability, especially of a public figure, to destructive criticism.

Go the distance

A boxer goes the distance when he can fight through all the scheduled rounds. OED cites the boxing idiom to 1934, but does not date its figurative usage. The idiomatic meaning is of carrying through a course of action to completion.

Have someone in your corner

A boxer’s ringside support staff – second, cut man, etc. – are in his corner, and assist him between rounds. Simply means to have the support or help of someone.

Heavy hitter

In boxing this one refers to a boxer who is able to hit hard; in life, it refers to an important or influential individual or organization.


In boxing, it is a weight division of 175 pounds (79.5 kg) or higher, or a boxer fighting in this division. The idiomatic meaning is of a person of great influence or importance. Lightweight- is the exact opposite, both in boxing and in life.

Hit below the belt

Hitting an opponent below the belt is an illegal move in boxing.  Idiomatically this one means to act unfairly or unscrupulously, disregarding the rules.

In-fighting, infighting 

Infighting in boxing is fighting in close quarters; when the fighters are extremely close, it may sometimes be difficult for spectators (or even the referee) to see each blow. In life it refers to a conflict between members of the same organization, often concealed from outsiders.

Kayo, K.O. 

From the boxing phrase “knockout” (knock unconscious), abbreviated “K.O.” and pronounced and often written as “kayo”. Idiomatically means to put one out of commission.

Lead with one’s chin 

Refers to a boxer leaving his chin, a vulnerable point, unprotected. Idiomatically meaning to speak without caution or to leave oneself unprotected.

Low blow 

Refers to an illegal blow aimed at the area below another boxer’s waist or belt. In life, representing an unscrupulous or unfair attack, action, or insult.

On the ropes 

Refers to a boxer who has been knocked against the ropes that enclose the boxing ring, and kept there by the blows of his opponent. In life this idiom refers to a close to defeat situation.

Pull one’s punches 

In boxing, a boxer who holds back from using all his strength is said to pull his punches. Often used in a negative sense, in the phrase “pull no punches”. The idiomatic meaning is of using less force than one is capable of; to be gentle or lenient.


In boxing, it refers to Dementia pugilistica, a neurological disorder in boxers triggered by repeated dazing blows or punches to the head over an extended period of time. In life this idiom means dazed, bewildered, or confused; or behaving in such a manner

Ringside judge 

In boxing, the ringside judges who score a boxing match sit at the ringside table (see below), and thus have an excellent view of the proceedings. In life this one refers to a person who follows a topic or situation closely.

Ringside seat, ringside table 

In boxing, a ringside seat is immediately adjacent to the ring in which the boxers fight, as is the ringside table, at which the ringside judges (see above) sit. Idiomatically referring to a place providing a good view of something.

Roll with the punches 

A boxer who “rolls with the punches” moves his body away from the force of a blow so as to lessen their impact. Idiomatically- to take adversity in stride; to adapt to difficult circumstances.


A round in boxing is one of a set number of small contests (usually three minutes) that make up the entire match. Idiomatically referring to a single phase of an endeavor or contest, often confrontational.

Saved by the bell  

Alludes to a boxer who is knocked to the canvas, and must regain his feet before a count of ten or lose the contest; if the bell signaling the end of the round is rung before the count is finished, the fighter now has until the start of the next round to recover and resume fighting. Idiomatically- to be saved from misfortune or unpleasantness by a timely interruption.

Sparring partner 

In boxing, this one refers to a boxer who is hired to practice with another for training purposes. In life, to a person with whom one routinely argues or enjoys arguing.

Square off 

In boxing, the term derives from the square shape of the ring, and the stance fighters assume immediately before the fight commences. Idiomatically- to assume a fighting stance or attitude.

Sucker punch 

A sucker punch in boxing is one delivered unexpectedly, in life this is too reflective of an unexpected blow.

Sunday punch 

In boxing, a Sunday punch is a knockout blow. In life this one refers to a destructive blow to an opponent as in “knocked him into next Sunday”.

Take a dive 

Refers to boxers who would pretend to be knocked out by a light or even non-existent punch, thus intentionally losing the fight. Idiomatically- to pretend or feign, with intent to deceive.

Take it on the chin  

In boxing, this one alludes to taking a physical blow on the chin, a deadly one. Idiomatically- to suffer misfortune or defeat.

Take off the gloves 

Boxing gloves are worn for protection of the boxer’s hands and to lessen the impact of the punches; bare-knuckle boxing is much more savage and dangerous. Idiomatically- to attack earnestly, without mercy.

Take the (full) count  

Refers to a boxer being knocked down, the referee counting off ten seconds, the time allotted for the boxer to regain his feet or lose the fight. A boxer who takes the full count accepts defeat. Idiomatically means to be defeated.

Throw in the towel 

The original-boxing meaning comes from throw up the sponge or chuck up the sponge; those meant to clean the boxers’ faces. Idiomatically- to surrender, admit defeat.

Throw one’s hat into the ring 

In early days of boxing, one signified a challenge by throwing one’s hat into the boxing ring. Idiomatically this one bares the meaning of signifying one’s candidacy for (political) office or election; entering a contest.

 [button color=”green” size=”big” link=”” target=”blank” ]Cilck Here to Download the Olypics Etymology[/button]

Click Here To Download the Olympic Etymology PDF


What do you think?

1000 points
Upvote Downvote

Written by Victoria Sheinkin

Victoria Sheinkin is a writer, content editor, translator and chief editor for Speaking three and a half languages, she holds two BAs from the Tel Aviv university- Communication and jounalism, English literature and linguistics.


Leave a Reply