Pedal to the medal


The manufactured snow has barely melted at the Sochi Winter Olympics, but I’ll take a moment to reflect on what I thought was the rise of the verb to medal, meaning of course to win gold, silver, or bronze in Olympic competition.

If you’re an Olympic athlete, you want to medal. You want to medal even more than you want to win a medal. If you’re covering the Olympics, you want to use the verb to medal. A lot.

I had assumed the verb medal was Variety-speak, that feisty dialect in which nouns—especially short ones—get verbified. Yes, verbified (1884), and to be kind to my readers I’ll add the dates the OED gives us for the first occurrence to each of the more oddball words in this post.

In Variety-speak, of course, directors helm (1930), or at least they used to. I like the instant nostalgia of helm, which has the effect of pretending that the masters of CGI (1975) are the Howard Hawkses of our day, and that the often indistinguishably attractive persons on screen are really our Grants and Bacalls and Russells. If you don’t recognize those names, please don’t write me to ask who they are.

But as to my assumptions about medal, a little research proved me wrong. The verb medal has been with us for quite a while, first transitively (1860)—“to decorate or honour with a medal”—and, shortly after, intransitively (1865)—“to win a medal.” Thus winners have been medalling for almost 150 years—longer, in fact, than the modern Olympic Games have been around. The verbal usage of medal is now primarily American, which may have thrown me off, but I guess I should have known that that word, which sounds recent, isn’t.

Of course, we are nothing if not inconsistent about these things. Athletes may medal, but the outstanding hockey team does not cup, Stanley-wise or otherwise. The winner of a stage of the Tour de France does not jersey.

And yet for quite a long time now we have been happy to let some awards do our verbing for us.

For example, for 400 years it’s been possible to trophy (1601), meaning “to bestow a trophy on.” Or one might laurel (1627), meaning “to wreath with laurel,” and so it is possible to have laurelled.

The uses of ribbon are many, but they include an ornamental piece of material symbolic of an honor and the bestowal of same. The verb to ribbon, which we are likely to encounter as the participial ribboned, in this sense dates at least from 1845.

Other awards arenas do things differently, though perhaps not so differently at that.

And so from Sochi back to Hollywood. Just as the Olympic flame is going out, the couturier dresses are being readied for the forthcoming Oscars.

In the matter of awards, one may have Oscarred (1958) or Oscared (1985), which implies the possibility that someone will Oscar this Sunday night (and in fact many will go home with Oscar, whatever verb may properly govern that relationship). Oscar is a busy fellow.

Not so the Antoinette Perry Award, the corresponding live-performance prize. Familiarly but universally known as the Tony, American theater’s highest honor has not yet been given a verbal status.

Despite his vivid turn in Hearts and Handrails as an unassuming gerontologist who rediscovers life through line-dancing, he failed to Tony.

No such sentence is yet possible. You win a Tony, but you don’t Tony or get Tonied. You’re the winner, Tony’s the prize. You smile for the cameras; it just stands there, looking shiny.

Perhaps it’s just as well that we don’t verbify the Tony award: There’s a long extinct verb to tony (1652) meaning “to make a fool of; to fool, cheat, swindle.” Don’t let theater people find out.

Yet in the spirit of language’s maddening refusal not to evolve the way we want it to, let me break a little new ground here: My congratulations to those who medalled in Sochi, those who will Oscar this weekend, and those who will Tony in June.

May their honors verb them well.