Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Owning the Podium (and the Lectern)

An oft-heard word of the Olympics is podium, the raised platform where medalists stand. As I wrote about recently for The New York Times Magazine, during the Olympics podium even gets used as a verb, as in "The Canadian alpine skiers failed to podium." The verbing of podium bothers a lot of people, but the noun presents problems too. Away from the Olympics, podium often gets conflated with another word, lectern.

The traditional meaning of podium is the one we hear at Olympics time: "a platform raised above the surrounding level to give prominence to the person on it." It's where Olympians want to be, obviously, when the medals are being awarded. Hence the hopeful Canadian slogan, "Own the Podium." The goal of the Own the Podium movement was to have Canada place first in the medals count in the Vancouver Games. Sadly for them, the Canadians have underperformed on their home turf, leading to snarky responses like that of Pete McMartin (a Vancouver Sun columnist writing for the Seattle Times): "We now call it Blown The Podium. Or Own the Odium."

It's pretty clear what podium (either the noun or the verb) means in the Winter Olympics. But consider the opening of this article on the news site Politico about the health care summit organized by President Obama:

The GOP's first demand for Thursday's health care summit was simple.
No podium.

Does that mean the Republicans didn't want Obama to be speaking from a raised platform? Read on:

They wanted the six-hour talks to take place around a table with House and Senate members sitting at the same height as President Barack Obama, according to a senior Senate GOP aide.
"We don't want any more of that Professor Obama lecturing to us stuff," said one staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another aide circulated pictures of Obama speaking at various events using his favorite platform, an elevated lectern perched above an audience of upraised, adoring faces.

So podium here is being equated with a "platform," but also with "an elevated lectern" — something that Obama would stand behind, rather than be seated on. The caption for the accompanying photo makes the "lectern" meaning even clearer: "Republicans want President Obama to address them not from behind a podium, but from a table where all participants can be at the same height."

The use of podium to mean the same thing as lectern (i.e., "a desk or stand with a slanted top used to hold a text at the proper height for a lecturer") has been a popular peeve since the early '60s. In a 1961 article for Communication Quarterly, Frank E.X. Dance wrote, "In any given class period a teacher of speech might refer to a podium, a rostrum, or a lectern, each time having in mind the wooden or metal object upon which a speaker may rest his notes, or behind which this same speaker may hide his quivering knees." That same year, Webster's Third New International Dictionary made note of the newly ambiguous usage by giving "lectern" as one of the definitions of podium.

When Webster's Third included this sense without comment, it was "rebuked by a usage commentator or two," according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. MWDEU further observes that the "lectern" meaning of podium has been "a favorite bugbear of the journalistic commentators." The podium/lectern distinction continues to be upheld by usage experts like Paul Brians and Kenneth G. Wilson. Bryan Garner, in his Modern American Usage, states that the "lectern" sense, "once widely condemned as a misuse, has become commonplace. But careful writers should avoid it." Garner places the usage at Stage 4 of 5 on his Language-Change Index, meaning (as he told us in a recent interview) that it has become "all but ubiquitous," accepted by everyone but the "snoots" (to use David Foster Wallace's memorable term).

The anti-snoot contingent argues that there is little chance for confusion: if an Olympic medalist is "standing on a podium," then that's clearly the "raised platform" meaning, but if Obama is "standing behind a podium," then it's the "lectern" meaning. Still, without contextual clues like a preceding preposition (on vs. behind), I see a slight potential for misunderstanding. When I first read the Politico article quoted above, I wasn't exactly sure which structure the Republicans were objecting to. As it happens, they didn't want Obama speaking on an elevated platform or from behind a lectern, so that would seem to cover both senses of podium simultaneously. In such cases where the ambiguity is difficult to resolve, it's probably best to keep the old podium/lectern distinction firmly in place.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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