Tag Archives: language

Olympic history on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth

Victorian circus master Pablo Fanque

On Tuesday 17 April, I’ll appear on BBC Radio 4’s language programme Word of Mouth. The show, presented by Chris Ledgard, is exploring the legal and linguistic issues surrounding the word ‘Olympic’, and I offer some thoughts on the word’s history. Before the International Olympic Committee was created in 1894, many different events were called Olympic or variants of it, like Olimpick and Olympian. These included sports festivals, like the Liverpool Olympic Festivals of the 1860s, the Morpeth Olympic Games that ran from the 1880s until 1958, and the Wenlock Olympian Games, as well as circus and music hall acts. My favourite, from 1815, is My Gyngell’s travelling variety show, which featured ‘Hydraulicks, Hydrostatics, Deceptions, Musical Glasses, Sagacious Birds, Astonishing Dogs, Olympic Exercises, and the Equilibrium Wire’. Or how about Pablo Fanque’s ‘unrivalled Equestrian Troupe’ who, in the 1850s, toured Britain with their ‘Wonderful and Extraordinary Feats, introducing New and Novel Features in the Olympian Games and Scenes of the Circle’.

The key thing is that all of these events were called Olympic or its variants: there was no monopoly on the word, as there is now, and its is up to historians to stress this historical diversity. We even have IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin on our side: “The term [Olympic] is in the public domain,” he wrote in 1910.  “If you are not afraid of looking ridiculous, and if your efforts are considerable enough to be compared to what goes into organising a standard Olympiad, go ahead and use it. No one has the right to prevent you from doing so.”

Word of Mouth will air at 4.00pm on Tuesday 17 April on BBC Radio 4.

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Filed under Media work

Goalposts and Googlies: sport and the English language

On 23 March 2012, I’m giving the keynote address to the English Language Student Conference at the University of Winchester. This is a one-day conference for all students of English, from A-level to Masters, and papers are being given by undergraduate and postgraduate students from the universities in England, Wales, Poland, and Iran. My paper will explore some of the links – historical and contemporary – between sport and language, and will include a discussion of what we mean when we say ‘Olympic’. I will also take part in the plenary session, hosted by the English Project.

For more information, contact Dr Carolin Esser-Miles at the University of Winchester


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Sports Tweet of the Year Competition

13 October 2011 sees the start of The English Project‘s year-long series of events around the Language of Sport. Any historical study of sport will show you how meanings change over time. Think about how the word ‘amateur’ used to be a term of praise in sport, but is now more frequently a term of abuse, or how the simple word ‘football’ can mean one of many different sports and games depending on time and place. And don’t get me started on how ‘Olympic’ has meant so many different things over time.

There are many ways in which everyone can get involved with this fascinating work. The first is a Sports Tweet of the Year competition. The deadline is very soon, so get tweeting.

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Filed under Competitions