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SPEAKING FROM THE HEIGHTS

Tomorrow I shall enter my 75th year. The day after, the Beijing Olympic Games begin. Low minds may suspect that the first event has some bearing on my lack of enthusiasm for the second. Some, yes: Iíve better ways to spend my remaining years than watching young men and women burn up theirs in a money-fuelled, drug-contaminated hyperathletics trade fair. But Iíd claim two wider reasons.

One is shallow enough: my dislike of being taxed, as I already am, for Londonís 2012 version of the ďgamesĒ. Second, more honourable, my revulsion at the hype in which sports reporters will clothe the great tamasha. Language will be breathlessly devalued as they compete to embellish how Mr A ran n hundred metres faster than Messrs B,C, D, E, F, G and H. For pityís sake, itís just a race.

But Iíve already ó on April 2nd ó spelled out my dislike of that aspect of Olympic language. Letís look at a humbler one. Why Olympic? From Olympia, original site of the games in ancient Greece, sure. But isnít this the same as Mount Olympus, the mythical seat of the Greek gods, in reality some 175 miles further north? Not all the media are quite so sure.

Modern English has helped to entrench that confusion. We use Olympic for the athletics, but speak of Olympian Zeus, father of the Greek gods, or, metaphorically, of Olympian detachment (as if these gods were above worldly affairs, when in fact all Greek myths show them about as detached as Krishna from the gopis).

Blame the ancient Greeks. Adding -ikos to the root of nouns was their standard way of forming adjectives. Thus we today have Homeric, Socratic, Platonic, Pyrrhic (as in the Pyrrhic victory, wildly costly to his own side, won by a Greek King Pyrrhus over the Romans in 279 BC) and countless plainer words such as lyric, manic, mythic, phallic. And some whose origins are less evident: cynic (from the Greek kuon, a dog: the original Cynics were a school of Athenian philosophers said to snarl at the beliefs of ordinary folk); poetic (from poietes, a maker); panic (Pan, the frightening god of Nature); strategic (strategos, a generaló 56 years ago I was not far from Olympia in the luggage van of a snail-slow Greek train, legs dangling over the track while a peasant declaiming that word mimed his wartime exploits, patting his shoulders and forehead to indicate German military brass, and then passing his fingernails sinisterly across his throat).

The Romans took over such Greek words, turning -ikos into -icus or into -icalis, a strictly Latin ending; the French turned them into -ique; and English has borrowed cheerfully from all three tongues, shortening the ending into -ic, and at times adding that to words with no Greek or Latin origin, such as bardic (from Gaelic), Sephardic (Hebrew) or Turkic (Turkish).

For the record, the first modern version of the games of Olympia was conducted in the mid 19th century, long before Pierre de Coubertin had the idea, in the English village of Much Wenlock; no drugs, and the winners got wreaths of leaves, not an advertising contract. And these were called the Olympian Games.

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