Staying "penta"

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Today's NYT brings us sports news with a linguistic touch. On the front page, no less, in "Modern Pentathlon Gets a Little Less Penta" by John Branch:

Shooting and running will be combined into a single event, a new final exam of intermittent focus and endurance. But modern pentathlon — derived from Greek, combining five (penta) and contest (athlon) — has no plans to change its name to tetrathlon. There has not been such a blatant mismatch between a title and its meaning in sports since 1993, when Penn State’s athletics program became the 11th member of the Big Ten Conference. In a nod to the faulty math, the Big Ten, which still has no plans to change its name, placed a subtle but distinctive “11” into its logo.

“The classicist in me says: ‘Wait a minute. This is crazy,’ ” said Brian Joseph, a linguistics professor at Ohio State — referring to pentathlon, not his university’s membership in the 11-member Big Ten. “But the linguist in me realizes that words change their meaning.”

Nice to see a linguist (and colleague and friend of mine) quoted on the front page of the Times.

(Brian, by the way, is officially Professor of Linguistics and Kenneth E. Naylor Professor of South Slavic Linguistics, but a newspaper is unlikely to print the whole title.)

Words, as Brian notes, often drift in meaning from their original, entirely compositional meanings. The celebration of Oktoberfest in its original location, Munich, is now mostly in September, and though Oktoberfests — there is an amazing number of them — are celebrated entirely in October in some places, in other places (this year, in Columbus OH, Cincinnati, Denver, and Kansas City, among others) the event is wholly in September. (Cincinnati calls itself Zinzinnati for Oktoberfest purposes.)

From Geoff Pullum: And let us not forget that Clive James's memoir of his undergraduate days in Cambridge is called May Week Was in June. There really was (and still is) a celebration called May Week, and it really did (and still does) fall in June.

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