Monday, April 10, 2006

April 10: Toponym Day

On this day in 1896 the first Olympic marathon was run in Athens, Greece. The origin of the word marathon comes from Greek legend. According to the story, a Greek foot-soldier Pheidippides was sent as a messenger from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persian army. As he approached Athens, having run a distance of nearly 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died. He did not die, however, without completing his mission; with his last gasp he uttered niki, the Greek word for victory (1). Incidentally, the word niki is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of victory: Nike – a name that would later become the trademark of a running shoe manufacturer in Oregon.

The word marathon evolved over time beyond long distance running. Beginning in the 1920s dance marathons became a fad. The term dance marathon then became blended to become dancethon. Later –thon became a popular suffix for describing a variety of activities that people do for long periods. According to Geoffrey Nunberg in The Way We Talk Now, the first telethon was held in 1949. Milton Berle spent 16 hours on air, and one of his guests was a young comedian who would raise the telethon to an art form, Jerry Lewis. Telethons were followed by pledgeathons, callathons, bikeathons, bowlathons, walkathons, and swimathons (2).

Marathon is an example of a toponym: a word that began as a specific place name (a proper noun) and evolved into a common noun. Like the word marathon, many words we use in English have attachments to specific places and events from the past.

Today’s Challenge: Out of Nowhere

Using a good dictionary, look up the following toponyms. See if you can find the specific geographic location that each word originated from.

venetian blind

Quote of the Day:
Courage is to feel the daily daggers of relentless steel and keep on living. --Douglas Malloch

1 - Boston Athletic Association (
2 – Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Way We Talk Now. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. p. 89.

No comments: