Metal mania and other Olympic tales

By Mellissa Martinez

There is no denying that gold, silver and bronze are both metals and medals, and they do reward those with mettle, but are they meddlesome? Perhaps. The winning or losing of an Olympic medal can certainly mix things up in the lives of athletes.

To clear any confusion, ‘medal’ refers to the flat piece of metal stamped with an inscription; ‘metal’ is a category of elements with a shiny surface; ‘mettle’ is a noun which denotes courage and fortitude; and ‘meddle’ is a verb to describe the act of tampering in someone else’s affairs.

‘Metal’ and ‘mettle’ are closely related, with shared roots in the Latin metallum. In fact, they were variants of each other until the 1600s when they began to differentiate. ‘Medal,’ meanwhile, has a different source, the French médaille, which has roots in Italian and ultimately the Latin medallia, ‘metal coin.’ Since its use in Vulgar Latin, ‘medal’ has always been related to coins. The verb ‘to meddle’ has nothing to do with metal, medal or mettle. Rather, it came to English from the Latin miscere, ‘to mingle, blend or mix.’

In Ancient Greece, medals were not awarded to the winners of the Olympic events. Instead, the first place finisher received an olive wreath, while second and third placers left the arena empty-handed. Fifteen centuries later, when the Olympics were reinstated in 1896, winners once again took home olive branches in addition to a silver medal. It wasn’t until 1904 that the tradition of awarding gold for first place, silver for second and bronze for third began.

While the olive branch was reserved for Olympians, the laurel branch or daphne had been awarded for many other athletic and academic events such as poetry competitions. Modern idiomatic usage reflects this Ancient Greek tradition. When someone is known for his success, it is said that he can rest on his laurels. Moreover, we now use the term ‘laureate’ to signify association with literary awards, military glory, winners of the Nobel Prize and the Gandhi Peace Award.

Although the silver medal was only given for first place during the brief period of the late 1800s to the early 1900s, silver is actually the most widely awarded metal of the Olympics. This is because all modern medals are now made predominately of silver. The 1912 Olympic games were the last to include gold medals actually made of solid gold. The word ‘silver’ can be traced back to the Proto-Germanic  silubra. Cognates still exist in Indo European languages, such as Dutch zilver, German silber, Russian serebro and Ukrain srlblo. Many positive expressions like silver-lining, silver-tongued and the magical silver bullet denote the powerful significance associated with silver.

Bronze, it seems, has often been associated with color. The origin of this word is still uncertain, but we do know that the verb ‘to bronze’ came to English from the French bronzer, ‘to make bronze in color.’ Some suggest that the noun ‘bronze’ came from the Venetian bronza, ‘color of glowing coals,’ or maybe ultimately from the Persian word for copper, birinj. In Middle English, the distinction between bronze (copper-tin alloy) and brass (copper-zinc alloy) was not clear and both metals were referred to with the same word, bras.

Although bronze and brass shared the same name for many centuries, the metals diverged to have different meanings and now each word carries distinct idiomatic nuances. While bronze generally still refers to color, a brassy person is considered rude and audacious. In the time of Old English, the word braesen described something ‘made of brass.’ Although the original word died out, its figurative meaning of impudent remains in the modern day ‘brazen.’

There are only a few remaining nouns in English that can form adjectives with the suffix –en to mean ‘made of.’ Both silfren ‘made of silver,’ and staenen, ‘made of stone,’ are no longer in use, but ‘wooden,’ ‘leaden,’ ‘waxen,’ ‘olden’ and ‘golden’ are in modern circulation. ‘Gold’ comes from the Proto-Germanic *gulth- and earlier Proto Indo European root *ghel- ‘yellow, green,’ possibly ‘bright.’ The popularity of gold as a metal has been infused into linguistic expressions such as worth its weight in gold, pot of gold, as good as gold, and heart of gold.

Although much time has passed since the kotinos was crafted from branches of the sacred wild olive tree, it is said that Zeus was teased for his frugality when Plutus asked, “Why does he only crown the  victorious athletes with wild olive? If he were rich, he would give them gold.” Though athletes wouldn’t receive gold until much later, one thing is sure—in Ancient Greece, winners were showered with love, praise and fame, just as they are today.



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