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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's Resolution: Get Naked

Many of you may have made your New Year's resolution to go and lift some weights and ride the exercise bikes at the gym. 

But I bet you weren't thinking, "and I will do my exercises naked, too!"

Nonetheless, this is the origin of the word gym, or more specifically of its longer, now barely (ha!) used form, gymnasium.

In ancient Greek, gymnos meant "naked", and because Greek athletes really did exercise naked, they developed a verb meaning exactly that, gymnazein (roughly, "to nakedize"), and called the place where they did it the gymnazion. The Romans took this word and turned it into gymnasium. We borrowed it, like so many Latin words, at the Renaissance, although at that time we were not referring to the local sweat parlour but to these places in the ancient world. By the early 1800s, though, after Europe's first gymnasium in the modern sense opened in Copenhagen in 1799, gymnasiums were cropping up in England, thanks to the rising popularity of doing exercises for physical fitness. By 1860, the short form "gym" was being used by Yale University students.

In the Germanic countries, however, the word "gymnasium" underwent a different evolution. Presumably because of the "healthy mind in a healthy body" motto of the ancients, by 1600, Germans were already using "Gymnasium" to mean a secondary school. So if you are in Germany and see a gymnasium, do not pop in expecting to pump some iron. In Germany, the physical fitness type of gymnasium is more likely to be called... "ein Fitnessclub"!

What is the plural of gymnasium? Gymnasiums? Gymnasia? There is really no reason to use the Latin form, although some writers do so when referring to the gymnasia of the ancient world. Otherwise, stick with the English plural. (For more on Latin plurals and why not to use them in English, see this post.)

I hope you stick to your gymnastic resolutions (or even better, try beginner adult ballet!), but please... keep your clothes on!

It's not too late to join my very popular History of the English Language course. If you missed the first one, don't worry, we'll do a quick review before launching into the next week's topic. More info: click here.


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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.