In a Word: Gymnast

You might be surprised to find out where the word “gymnast” comes from (and relieved that we don't still adhere to the original meaning of the word).

Gymnast in mid-motion on a balance beam

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

One of the first history lessons that many children learn to giggle about in grade school is that the ancient Olympic Games were performed in the nude. What history teachers often fail to convey, though, is that such au naturel athletics were not limited to the Olympics.

Ancient Greeks considered physical training every bit as important for boys and men as intellectual training. Centuries before the invention of spandex, polyester blends, and all manner of sweat-wicking fabrics, athletes performed their daily training exercises in the nude in order to give themselves maximum freedom of movement. The Greek word for “naked” is gymnos, and it’s from this root that we get the words gymnast — literally “one who exercises in the buff” — gymnasium, and gymnastics.

Thankfully, though the English language retained the words, athletes are by no means required to adhere to their etymological roots. In fact, it’s pretty frowned upon.

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