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7 Olympic words and their Greek origin

The Olympic Games have just finished! Whether you were a fan or not, it was nice to hear about something different on the news, other than Brexit, Isis, and Donald Trump – right?

The Olympic Games made me feel positive, peaceful and patriotic. Every time someone won a medal, I got a sense of achievement as if I was the athlete. Watching some of the finals was more stressful than watching a psychological thriller; they were nail-biting roller coaster rides. We all became a bit more passionate about our countries, our origins, and the teams that represent us.

Being Greek, I couldn't hide my pride not just for the Greek and Cypriot missions, but also for the very fact that the Olympic Games were founded in Greece, and in fact, in the very region where I grew up: Hleia. I am not a historian so I will not go into the detail of explaining the origins of the Olympic Games. But as a linguist, I wanted to talk to you about a few words you saw popping up in the headlines, starting with the word Olympic.

From Greek Ολυμπιακός (olimpiakos), meaning 'from Olympia or Olympus', the word Olympic made it into the English language in the late 16th century through Latin. Olympia is a town in Hleia, the birth-place of the Olympic Games. You may be aware that the Olympic flame starts its journey from Olympia and travels all around the world to make it to its final destination: the hosting country, which for this year's Olympics was Brazil.

And what would the Olympic Games be without the athletes? The word comes from the Greek αθλητής (athletes) and ἀθλείν (athlin), meaning 'to exercise' and άθλος (athlos) for 'achievement' or 'contest', hence the sports: decathlon and heptathlon.

Decathlon is a compound word consisting of two smaller Greek words: δέκα (THeka) — the th here is pronounced like the th from then as opposed to the th from theology — and άθλος, altogether meaning 'ten achievements'. In this sport, athletes compete in ten events: 100 metres sprint, long jump, shot-put, high jump, 400 metres, 110 metres hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500 metres. The word made it into the English language in the early 20th century directly from Greek.

Both decathlon and heptathlon must require tremendous training and focus. It must be really difficult competing on Olympic level in one sport. Can you imagine what it takes to be good at ten different types of them? In my opinion, however, Marathon is king.

The word comes from Μαραθώνας (Marathonas) a town in Greece. You may have associated the name of this town with the Battle of Marathon which took place in 490 BC. During that historic battle, Miltiadis’s army defeated Datis’s. It was Darius’s first attempt to subjugate Greece, which failed, making him realise that invading Greece wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be.

According to Herodotus, the Athenian runner Pheidippides run from Athens to Sparta to ask for help before the battle. He ran more than 140 miles, arriving in Sparta a day later. Another version of the story says that the Athenian runner, ran to Sparta to announce the victory after the battle and that's when he shouted the very famous νενικήκαμεν (nenikikamen) 'we have won' and immediately after, he fell on the ground and he exhaled his last breath.

Following the battle, the Athenian army marched 25 miles back to Athens at a very high pace in order to stop the Persian navy from approaching Athens from sea. They arrived back in Athens late in the afternoon, just in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, completing this way the Athenian victory.

Marathon became an Olympic sport in 1896. The standardised distance ran today is roughly 26 miles, which matches the distance the Athenian army marched back to Athens from Marathon. The word Marathon entered the English language in the 19th century directly from Greek.

Other Olympic words of Greek origin are rhythmic and gymnastics. Rhythmic from Greek ρυθμικός (rhithmikos) and ρυθμός (rhithmos) stands for ‘having rhythm' and 'rhythm' respectively. The word became part of the English language during the 17th century through the French rhythmique. Gymnastics comes from the Greek γυμνός (gimnos) for 'naked' and γυμνάζομαι (gimnazomai), meaning to 'exercise', hence the words gym and gymnast.

In conclusion, some of these words are so ancient, they are older than the Olympic Games themselves. They are deeply connected with Ancient Greece and its history, carrying in them not just meaning, but the values and ideas of a whole civilisation.


Vasiliki is a professional translator from English and French into Greek and from Greek into English. She runs Greek to Me Translations from Oxford, UK. She is a Member of the CIoL and the ITI and she is registered the Greek Embassy. She specialises in legal, marketing, psychometrics and food content. Her mission is to help businesses and private individuals reach their goals through the power of words. You can contact her at​


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