The Grammarphobia Blog

Jock talk

Q: I have a question about the non-word “athleticism.” It’s enough to ruin a football broadcast even when the Hawkeyes win. An ism is a belief or philosophy, not a physical attribute. Is there another word that would be appropriate?

A: Believe it or not, “athleticism” is 140 years old and counting. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the practice of, or devotion to, athletic exercises; training as an athlete.”

The OED’s first published citation for the word is from the Daily News (London’s, not New York’s) in November 1870: “The controversy about athleticism at the Universities and the Public Schools.”

There’s also a citation from Macmillan’s Magazine in 1881: “Athleticism … ought to be a valuable ally in promoting habits of temperance and sobriety.”

Etymologically, the OED says, it’s a combination of the adjective “athletic” – which comes to us by way of Latin (athleticus) and ultimately from Greek (athletikos) – and the suffix “ism.” 

But not every ism is a belief or philosophy. As the OED explains, a word ending in “ism” can also be “a simple noun of action … naming the process, or the completed action, or its result.”

Examples include “baptism,” “criticism,” “embolism,” “magnetism,” “plagiarism,” and so on.

The OED adds that the suffix can also be used for “words in which -ism expresses the action or conduct of a class of persons,” as in “heroism,” “despotism,” “barbarism,” and others.

Yet another function of “ism” is to form “a term denoting a peculiarity or characteristic.” Examples include “classicism,” “colloquialism,” “modernism,” “sophism,” and “witticism.”

Terms like these are formed from adjectives, and illustrate the characteristic of being classic, or colloquial, or modern, or witty, or whatever. So “athleticism” would probably fall into this category.

 The OED entry for “athleticism” doesn’t include the more recent sense of the word, which Webster’s New World Dictionary (4th ed.) defines as “physical prowess consisting variously of coordination, dexterity, vigor, stamina, etc.”

However, several OED entries for other words include published references from as early as 1939 that use “athleticism” in its contemporary sense, more or less.

The first couple of examples use the word in the phrase “sexual athleticism,” which the OED defines as “vigorous or skilful sexual performance, or the capacity for this.”

The British musician and writer Julian Jay Savarin used the term in his 1986 thriller Naja to refer to a disc jockey who “body-popped with unbelievable athleticism.”

The most recent citation (from the Feb. 10, 2002, issue of the New York Times Book Review) uses the term in a review of a book about the African-American missionary William Henry Sheppard:

“Sheppard brought to the table not only an agile intelligence – he was the rare missionary who learned several African languages – but athleticism and physical courage (he enjoyed nothing more than a day spent bagging hippopotamuses, often thereby becoming a hero to entire hungry villages).”

Now, that is indeed an example of bringing intelligence, athleticism, and physical courage to the table!

You may also be interested in a recent blog entry we wrote on a related word, “physicality,” though we suspect that you won’t like it any better than “athleticism.”

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