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Is your vocabulary in shape for the Olympics?

It turns out that the biggest sport at this summer's Games is something called 'athletics.'

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Do you know the difference between the "modern" pentathlon and the ordinary plain-vanilla "ancient" one? Can you tell "artistic gymnastics" from "rhythmic gymnastics"? Do you know the four flavors of cycling on display at this year's Olympic Games?

After I decided to look into the vocabulary of the Olympics, my most surprising finding was that "athletics" is itself a sport. Indeed, it's "the largest single sport at the Games," according to the London 2012 website.

Our English athlete traces back to the Greek athletes, a prizefighter, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It goes back to a Greek verb, athlein, meaning "to contest for a prize."

Athletics was probably formed by analogy with gymnastics, which originates with another Greek verb meaning to exercise or train, or more literally "to train naked."

Athletics, according to London 2012, "is the perfect expression of the Olympic motto 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' ('Faster, Higher, Stronger')." All those events, such as the discus throw and shot put, that we associate with the Olympic Games – 47 of them, with 2,000 athletes competing – collectively add up to a single sport known as "athletics."

These "ics" words for disciplines or branches of study can be tricky. They're generally singular, but can be plural: "Economics is an important subject to study," we might say. But: "The politics of the farm bill are very complex."

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that "ics," instead of "ic," became the fashion during the 1500s. It appears to have been an instance of trying to get English to follow Greek grammar rules. Subject matters whose names in English were settled before 1500 tend to have singular names: arithmetic, logic.


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