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Friday, February 7, 2014

Testing one's medal

The Olympics are upon us, and as usual there will be much handwringing and gnashing of teeth over the use of "medal" as an intransitive verb meaning "win a medal". 

As you know by now, there is nothing wrong with taking a noun and making it a verb (see this post).

What will no doubt surprise you is just how long this has been done with "medal", and who the "culprits" are. In 1822, Byron wrote this: "He was medalled and well mounted." and in 1860, Thackeray wrote this: "Irving went home medalled by the king." These examples are both transitive, in the sense "provide with a medal, bestow a medal upon", but the "win a medal" sense also dates from the mid-19th century. In the specifically sporting sense, it dates back to the 1960s at least (that's fifty years ago, so hardly "new").

I really see no reason to object to it; it's really quite an efficient way of saying "win a medal". Incidentally, the word "place" underwent the same evolution: originally a noun, then used as a transitive verb, and finally as an intransitive verb meaning "finish in a certain place". 

I suspect that one reason people don't like "medal" as a verb is that we already have the identical-sounding "meddle" (which has a complicated history we'll go into some other time), and, for that matter for us North Americans, "metal" and "mettle". However, English has hundreds of homophones, so this is not a valid objection either. 

The noun "medal" came to us via French and Italian in the 1500s, and ultimately goes back to the name of an ancient Roman coin, the medalia, which was worth half a denarius (a coin originally worth ten asses).

If you're wondering how to spell the present participle and past forms of the verb "medal", they are:
"medalling" and "medalled" if you follow British spelling practice, 
"medaling" and "medaled" for American spelling practice. Canadians do both; traditionally it was "medalling" and "medalled", but I suspect it is shifting towards the American practice. 

Now, what about the verb "to podium"?

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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.