The Grammarphobia Blog

Medal play

Q: Since the Winter Olympics, I’ve been hearing sportscasters use “medal” as a verb. For example, “Emily Cook medaled in freestyle skiing.” Although my spellchecker thinks “medaled” is a word, it sounds horrible to my ear. What do you think?

A: You’re not the only person who has emailed us about this. We wouldn’t use “medal” as a verb (it sounds too jargony to us), but dictionaries accept the usage, and it has a history.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes this verbal use as “informal,” but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary list it without comment – that is, as standard English. (The past tense can be spelled with one “l” or two.)

The verb, meaning to win a medal in a sport, entered English by way of American sports writing in 1966. The Valley News in Van Nuys, California, used both “medaled” and “gold-medaled” in an article about a diving competition.

The OED defines this meaning of the verb “medal” as “to come first, second, or third in a sporting event or competition.”

But there’s an older sense of the verb, “to decorate or honour with a medal,” according to the OED. This usage, which is generally seen in the passive¸ has been around since the early 19th century. 

The earliest example cited in the OED is from an 1822 letter written by Lord Byron: “He was medalled.” And Thackeray used it in 1860 in his Roundabout Papers: “Irving went home medalled by the King.”

We’ve also noticed “podium” used as a verb in Olympic-speak, meaning essentially the same thing as “medal.” It’s a figurative reference to the three-step platform where Olympians appear to cheering crowds.

This one isn’t in dictionaries yet, but if it sticks around long enough, lexicographers will notice it.

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