August 23, 2004

Olympic event named by a linguist

A recent newspaper article about the Olympic marathon mentioned that this type of race was first proposed and named by Michel Breal, a linguist who also coined the term semantics.

A fuller account can be found in this 2002 article in Running Journal:

"It was not a Greek, but a Bavarian born in 1832, Michel Breal, who conceptualized the race," said Dr. Dave Martin, marathon historian. "Breal's parents were Jews of French descent, and when Michel was just five, the elder Breal died and the family moved to France. Breal became the head of the French education system, and had a personal interest in mythology and the ancient Olympic Games of Greece."

Breal dreamed of a race based on a run by a Greek warrior who ran the distance of approximately 25 miles (40 km) from Marathon to Athens in search of soldiers to fight off potential Persian conquerors. When the Persians failed, the distance was run again - perhaps by the same Greek warrior - to announce victory news to the king.

"Since the ancient Greek Olympic games were to be reborn in 1896, Breal believed the time was right to add a new event - the long-distance run," said Martin. "Long-distance running was a new concept for the Olympics, but it was accepted, added to the games, and dubbed the marathon." As a symbol of the games' resurrection, the competition began that year in Athens on Easter Monday.

For a bit more information on Breal, here is the Columbia Encyclopedia entry and the 1911 Britannica entry. And this chapter (from F.R.Palmer,Semantics: A New Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1976) explains in a bit more detail:

The term semantics is a recent addition to the English language. (For a detailed account of its history see Read 1948.) Although there is one occurrence of semantick in the phrase semantick philosophy to mean 'divination' in the seventeenth century, semantics does not occur until it was introduced in a paper read to the American Philological Association in 1894 entitled 'Reflected meanings: a point in semantics'. The French term semantique had been coined from the Greek in the previous year by M. Breal. In both cases the term was not used simply to refer to meaning, but to its development - with what we shall later call 'historical semantics'. In 1900, however, there appeared Breal's book  Semantics: studies in the science of meaning; the French original had appeared three years earlier [Essai de semantique (1897) - myl]. This is a superb little book, now sadly neglected but well worth reading. It is one of the earliest books on linguistics as we understand it today, in that, first, it treated semantics as the 'science of meaning', and secondly, that it was not primarily concerned with the historical change of meaning (see 1.4).

Breal's connection to the Olympic movement and to the history of the marathon as an event is just a curiosity. But I'm interested that Breal was "head of the French educational system" a hundred years after von Humboldt reformed the Prussian one.


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 23, 2004 09:07 AM