February 15, 2006

Odium against "podium"

Based on my previous Olympic-y posts I've received two independent queries from readers wondering, "What's the deal with these Olympics people using podium as a verb?" It's also come up on the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english and has rankled several bloggers:

Dear Mr. Announcer,
Just because you are working at the snowboarding competition, it doesn't mean you can talk like a 16-year-old who's strung out on Red Bull and skipped school to spend her days in a halfpipe. "Podium" is a noun — not a verb. Please don't say "She can definitely podium" again.
(Montecore the Tiger)

These linguistic absurdities continue, aided and abetted by the network people. The latest is truly bizarre, from the olympic coverage:
"She was unable to podium."
Arrrrgh. Grrrrr. Comment unnecessary.
(New Spew)

You know you are getting older when you find new language inventions (such as 'verbing') very distracting. As a linguist, I try to be descriptive instead of prescriptive in my attitude about other people's language use but I admit that the use of podium ("I'm just so happy to podium in this race" when finishing in the top 3) as a verb during the Olympic coverage very distracting — it catches my attention every time.
(BJ's Musings & Meanderings)

When so many people are suddenly and simultaneously peeved by a particular usage, it's time for us language kibitzers to sit up and take notice.

As with many other usage peeves, those darn kids get the blame — this time it's those darn kids with their snowboards and weird slang. Here's the commentary of Bob Wolfley, sports columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

There has been a horrible development at the Olympics and it has nothing to do with Michelle Kwan's withdrawal.
You're reluctant to blame it on the snowboarders, because you imagine these poor kids and their sport have been blamed for something or another their whole lives and they do talk in a language all their own.
However, it's undeniable this troubling development came out of the halfpipe competition.
A few of the competitors said they were hoping to "podium," as in win a medal. They used "podium," a noun, as a verb.
You should have seen this coming.
For years athletes and others have said they want to "medal" at the Olympics, yet another noun used as a verb.
It's a little step from there to "podium" as a verb.

Not surprisingly, it looks like we've got another case of the Recency Illusion on our hands, combined with its comrade-in-arms the Adolescent Illusion. Even if those young snowboarders in Turin/Torino are using podium as a verb, that doesn't mean they invented it or even popularized it. The Factiva newspaper database turns up Olympics-related examples going back to 1992:

Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 21, 1992
Kirstie Marshall may have failed to gain a place at the Winter Olympics, but she's right up there with the stars when it comes to TV commentary. On Channel 9, she gave us the word "podiumed" as in, "She hasn't won an event this season, but has podiumed a couple of times". We suppose this means the person in question came either second or third.

Kirstie Marshall was competing at the Winter Olympics in Albertville, France in aerial skiing, which was then only a demonstration sport. (She would later gain notoriety in Australia as a member of the Legislative Assembly, when she was ejected from the Parliament chamber for public breastfeeding.) Marshall was a 22-year-old at the '92 Games, competing in a flashy new winter sport, so the lineage to the young snowboarders of today seems pretty clear. But in the meantime, the usage has spread to various other sporting competitions. As noted by Peter Duncanson on alt.usage.english, the verb podium is commonly used in Formula One racing in the UK and elsewhere. In racing, too, the usage has its detractors. Chris Zelkovich of the Toronto Star has complained about it on at least two occasions:

Toronto Star, Sep. 3, 2001
Global auto racing announcer Chris McClure did a fine job during yesterday's Indy, but let's hope he never again uses the word podium as a verb, as in "Carpentier podiumed in Detroit."

Toronto Star, July 14, 2003
Varsha uttered the ugliest "word" of the day when he referred to the number of drivers who have "podiumed" this year. Ugh!

So what makes the use of podium as a verb, whether in winter sports or auto racing, so "ugly" for some listeners? A lot of English speakers have a general predisposition against innovative verbing (it "weirds language," as Calvin of "Calvin & Hobbes" famously put it). Some acts of verbing are considered more offensive than others, however. In the case of podium, one problem might be that the relation between noun and verb is rather indirect in a metonymic sort of way: 'to podium' means 'to make it to the (medals) podium,' which itself is allusive for 'to win a medal.' The metonymic predecessor of podium noted by Bob Wolfey, medal, has had better success as a verb, perhaps because the sense of 'winning a medal' is more transparent to noncompetitors. (This isn't to say that medal as a verb doesn't bug some people — it gets commented on pretty much every Olympics, despite the fact that it can be found in sports pages going back to 1966.)

Another problem some might have with the verbing of  podium is its length. As Mark Liberman has noted, just about any monosyllabic noun can get verbed. Two-syllable examples also abound — particularly if, like medal, the second syllable is unstressed. But a three-syllable base form seems beyond the pale for many speakers, even if it ends in two unstressed syllables. Another trisyllabic noun-to-verb that rubs people the wrong way is leverage (attested since 1937), though in that case the peeve seems to be more directed against buzzwordy corporate-speak in general.

Even among frequent users of podium as a verb, its length may be a bit of a problem. Extending the word to four syllables by adding -ing seems relatively rare, as there are far more relevant examples of podium preceded by a modal or in the form podiumed. (I suspect the podium-gripers don't like the past-tense form very much, probably because the final consonant cluster /md/ sounds a bit awkward.)

Though Olympic coverage may help to mainstream this usage, for now it's still mostly an ingroup thing. But the cachet of athletic ingroupness has proven enticing in the past (cf. my bad) and the verb podium may spread in unforeseen directions, despite its critics. To quote a commenter in a French archery forum: "Bravo à tous les podiumers!"

[Update, 2/17: More on podiuming from the Sacramento Bee. Language Logger Geoff Nunberg notes another trisyllabic noun-to-verb form that gets people's goat: dialogue.]

[Update, 2/26: And now more from Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 15, 2006 06:02 PM