Compete For Linguistic Gold With These Olympics Words

The Olympics, formally known as the Olympic Games, are an international athletic competition featuring multiple sporting events between athletes representing their country. The Winter Games (or the Winter Olympics) and the Summer Games (or the Summer Olympics) typically happen every four years but are staggered so that they happen two years apart.

This year, the Summer Olympics are being held in the city of Tokyo, Japan, after being postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The International Olympic Committee also officially recognizes two related sporting competitions run by other organizations: the Paralympics, which are held around the same time and feature competition between athletes with disabilities, and the Special Olympics, which feature competition between child and adult athletes with intellectual or physical disabilities. All three competitions feature some of the same events.

During the Olympics, the world watches the world’s best athletes do what they do best. It’s also a time when a lot of specialized athletic terms get vaulted into our awareness—and some of their origins are as ancient as the Olympics themselves.

Join us as we explain how the shot got put in shot put, which boxing weight class is named after a chicken, which martial art’s name translates as “kick fist way,” and why there’s a horse in pommel horse but no horses in steeplechase or water polo. We’ll even discuss the discus!


First, let’s learn a little bit more about the Olympics themselves. The word Olympics comes from the name of the place in ancient Greece known as Olympia—the plain of Mount Olympus, which was said to be the realm of Zeus and other gods. For this reason, this site in the ancient Greek city-state of Elis was chosen to host a festival that originally featured both religious ceremonies and athletic competitions: the ancient Olympic Games, which are thought to have been first held around 776 BCE.

In the 1890s, French scholar Pierre de Coubertin began a movement to reinstate the Olympic Games as a global event. In 1896, the first global modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece.

There are many famous symbols associated with the Olympics. The Olympic rings, created by de Coubertin in 1913, symbolize the five major continents that compete in the Olympics (Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas). From left to right, the rings are colored blue, yellow, black, green, and red. Combined with a white background, the colors represented every flag in the world that existed at the time.

The other major Olympic symbol, the torch, represents the connection between the Games of today and those held in ancient times. Fire was seen by the Greeks as a divine sign of the gods, and perpetual fires were kept burning in Greek temples, including those in ancient Olympia dedicated to Zeus, Hera, and Hestia. Today, the Olympic torch is lit at the temple of Zeus in Olympia and then relayed by representatives of different countries until it reaches the host city. This relay symbolizes international friendship and cooperation as different nations work together to keep the flame lit during its journey.


Get a taste of the language of victory with these synonyms for champion.


The modern Olympics feature an ancient event known as the marathon—a 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) running race. There is also an event known as marathon swimming, in which swimmers swim for 6.2 miles (10 km).

The word marathon takes its name from the ancient Greek city of Marathon. The origin of the 26-mile marathon is believed to come from the popular legend of Pheidippides, who is said to have run 26 miles to deliver the news of the Greek victory over the Persians during the battle of Marathon before dying of exhaustion.

triathlon, pentathlon, and decathlon

All three of these names have similar origins. The Greek word âthlon means “contest.” The beginning of each word indicates the number of different events it involves: tri- means “three,” pent- means “five,” and deca- means “ten.”

Of these three events, only the pentathlon was held in the ancient Olympic Games, and in fact it was regarded as the most important and prestigious event of all. The ancient pentathlon consisted of running, jumping, wrestling, spear throwing, and discus throwing. The modern version consists of running, swimming, horse riding, fencing, and pistol shooting.

The traditional modern decathlon includes the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400-meter running race on the first day; and a 110-meter hurdles race, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500-meter running race the second day.

The triathlon is the only one in which the events are done one after another. It includes swimming, cycling, and running.


You might know that steeplechase is the name of an equestrian sport (not one of the ones in the Olympics) in which horses must jump over obstacles and gallop through water. But it’s also the name of an Olympic event for human Olympians (no horses allowed). Steeplechase is a track-and-field event that consists of a 3,000-meter race around a track featuring hurdles, barriers, and water pits.

The track-and-field steeplechase takes its name from the steeplechase in horse racing. The name steeplechase comes from the fact that these horse races originally used churches (which are known for having steeples) to mark the end of the race or as a landmark for riders (who would “chase the steeple”).


If horse racing does excite you though, jump through all the hurdles to learn more about the language of horse racing.


Discus is one of the oldest known sports. It is mentioned in the ancient Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are believed to have been written around the time that discus became an event in the ancient Olympic Games. It was one of the five events in the ancient version of the five-event competition known as the pentathlon. (It’s part of the modern decathlon but not the modern pentathlon.)

The name of this event comes from the Greek dískos, meaning “disk.” As you probably know, the event involves throwing a disk as far as possible.

The current world record in discus throw is held by Jürgen Schult, who hurled the discus 74.08 meters when competing for East Germany in 1986 (Lithuanian Virgilijus Alekna came within .2 meters in 2000).


The sport of javelin throwing evolved from the ancient use of spears for hunting and warfare, and we sometimes use the word javelin to refer to such a spear. Similar to the discus, the javelin event involves throwing it as far as possible. The ancient Greek Olympic Games featured javelin as a part of the pentathlon.

Despite the long Olympic history of the event, the word javelin doesn’t originally come from Greek. Javelin is thought to have entered English in the 1500s from Middle French. Evidence suggests this word may be based on older words for pointed throwing weapons, such as the Celtic gablākos, which is thought to refer to a spear with a forked head.

shot put

Yet another Olympic event based on throwing something as far as possible, the shot put involves throwing a heavy ball from above the shoulder. The shot put is one of the “field” events in track and field, along with discus and javelin, all three of which are events in the modern decathlon.

Although it might not seem like it, the shot put has a pretty straightforward name. The heavy metal ball used in the event is called a shot (based on the use of this word to refer to the metal balls fired from cannons and older firearms). The word put is used in the sense meaning “to throw something.” In shot put, an athlete literally “puts the shot.”

pole vault

The name of this event is actually straightforward, too. In the pole vault, athletes attempt to vault themselves up and over an elevated crossbar by using a long, flexible pole. In the past, the event was known by similar names, including pole leap and pole jump.

In the 1500s, the practice of using a pole to leap for distance or height (which was sometimes done for practical reasons, such as moving over rocky terrain) gained some popularity as a sport.

Modern pole vaulters can get pretty high off the ground. In 2020, Swedish pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis set the world record for outdoor pole vault with an astounding height of about 20.17 feet (about 6.15 meters).

pommel horse

In gymnastics, the pommel horse event involves a gymnast performing maneuvers on top of a piece of equipment with handles.

The pommel in pommel horse refers to the curved handles, called pommels, on top of the apparatus. The word horse in the name refers to a device based on a wooden horse used by the ancient Romans to practice mounting and dismounting.


Learn more about the gymnastics moves—and the gymnast they’re named for—that are leaving their mark by reading about the Biles.

judo, tae kwon do, and karate

All three of these Asian martial arts are Olympic events. Tae kwon do, or taekwondo, is a Korean discipline whose name is formed from the words tae (kick), kwon (fist), and do (way). Both karate and judo originated in Japan. Karate literally translates as “empty hand,” and judo is based on Chinese words that translate to “soft way.”

Some other martial arts terms you are likely to see at the Olympics include the term for a martial arts routine, kata (meaning “shape” or “pattern” in Japanese), and the term ippon (Japanese for “one point”), which refers to the point an athlete is awarded after executing a perfect move.


The sport of badminton involves using rackets to volley an object, called a shuttlecock, back and forth over a net without hitting out of bounds or letting it touch the ground. Unlike other racket sports, the shuttlecock is not a ball—it’s kind of like a feathered cone with a cork head.

Badminton is named after an estate in Gloucestershire, England, called Badminton House (in the village of Badminton). It’s the seat for the duke of Beaufort and is supposedly the location where the sport that became badminton was first played. It was adapted from the Indian sport of poona and has its origins in the ancient game called battledore and shuttlecock.

water polo

The sport of water polo involves two teams of swimmers trying to get a ball past a goalkeeper in order to score points—like a game of soccer (football) in water but using hands instead of feet.

The current version of water polo is not a whole lot like the sport known as polo, which is basically hockey with golf clubs on horseback. However, an early version of the sport that became known as water polo involved players riding barrels and hitting the ball with sticks, similar to how polo players ride horses while hitting the ball with mallets.

flyweight, welterweight, and bantamweight

The sport of boxing is traditionally divided into different weight classes, and these classes are also used in the Olympics. On the other end of the spectrum from the well-known (and self-explanatory) heavyweight class is flyweight, the lightest Olympic weight class. The name of the welterweight class between lightweight and middleweight is connected to the noun welter, which once referred to a “heavyweight horseman or pugilist.”

The name of the former bantamweight class, one of the original five weight classes in Olympic boxing, has an especially odd origin. Apparently, the name bantamweight comes from the word bantam, which refers to a very small chicken. 


Now that you know a little bit more about some of the cooler words you’ll see at the Olympics, sprint on over to our list of Olympic words. After you’re finished, you can compete in our Olympics quiz to see if you can take home the gold medal in Olympics knowledge.

Take the quiz here!

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Word of the Day

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modus operandi

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Word of the day
modus operandi

[ moh-duhs op-uh-ran-dee, -dahy ]