Who is medalling with our language?

Monday 17 February 2014, 14:04

Ian Jolly Ian Jolly is style editor, BBC newsroom in London

Lizzy Yarnold medals in Sochi There was great delight when the Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold medalled in the skeleton at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We were all hoping other Britons would podium as well. Or, as many of us might say, "won a medal" and "be on the podium".

How did words we have always treated as nouns suddenly become verbs? It's something we try to avoid in BBC news, although we recognise that constant usage can make such changes difficult to resist.

I've been holding out for some time on ‘debut’, which I believe is a noun that has not yet made the transition (or should I say ‘transitioned’?) to a fully fledged verb.

But how do we know that many commonly used verbs did not also start life as mere nouns? What about target, ship, knife?

At the heart of this debate is the traditional argument that language should be allowed to evolve, and none of us would want to stand in the way of linguistic progress. But medal? Podium?

They sound strange to our ears, but perhaps that's because this new application is one that has emanated from sport, where verbal gymnastics are part of the territory.

I can't imagine us using these particular verbs in other contexts: ‘Sgt Miller medalled twice during World War One’ or ‘We've just heard that President Obama is about to podium at the G8 summit’.

But investigation shows that such usage is by no means new, and neither is the discussion about it. Each time an Olympics rolls round ‘medalled’ crops up as regularly as a perennial plant.

In fact TeamGB’s own site tells us: “British sliders have medalled at the last three Games.” This suggests there is already an acceptance of the term within sporting circles. Interestingly, the same page offers: “Yarnold has claimed seven consecutive podiums this season”, so we can see where that one is heading.

But the Oxford English Dictionary has references to ‘medalled’ going back to 1822, so it’s clearly not some new-fangled invention, though its emergence in a sporting sense is much more recent.

In a blog from 2012, the OED examines the wider issue of ‘verbalising’ nouns. It tells us: “A quick look at verbs in the OED that first appeared in the 20th Century shows that around 40% of them are conversions from nouns.”

It does seem that some raise the ire of language enthusiasts more than others. Those that are seen as jargon can grate: incentivise, action, even conference.

But we have willingly taken on board others without much complaint: text, fax, skateboard.

The Guardian’s estimable David Marsh was pragmatic when he wrote in the wake of the 2008 Olympics about medalled: “Language changes,” he said, “and the diehards generally lose the battle (which is not to say it is never worth fighting).”

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time the BBC has considered the topic. Olympics supremo Roger Mosey wrote about it in 2010.

He was also for resisting, and comments from readers suggested that was a fine strategy. They also chipped in with their own pet peeves, sports commentary apparently having its own place in the annals of language-mangling.

But, four years on, noun-cum-verbs such as medal and podium are tightening their grip. I’m with Roger and think we should hold out - but I suspect it won’t be long before we’re joining the crowd.

BBC News style guide

Writing skills

Other blogs by Ian Jolly on language and BBC News style

Doubting Thomas’s apostrophe? Teacher knows best

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