The previous post delved into the Spanish verb pasmar and the related noun espasmo/spasm. Those words traced back to the Greek verb span that meant ‘to pull,’ so that the ancient Greeks conceived of a cramp or convulsion as an unwanted, uncontrolled pulling of a body part.

Now I’m going to pull you, willy-nilly, into the realm of conjecture. The first step, which is a firm one, takes us from the ancient Greek verb span to the derived noun spadion, which designated ‘a racetrack’ (we can see those horses pulling chariots or just their own body weight). The conjectural step looks for influence from the Greek adjective stadios ‘firm,’ which might have caused Greek speakers to alter spadion to the stadion that meant ‘a running track’ and, understandably, ‘a certain measure of length.’ The Romans borrowed stadion as stadium, which English carried over unchanged, and which Spanish has changed to estadio.

Here’s the full entry for stadium in the 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary:

1. A Greek measure of length, being the chief one used for itinerary distances, also adopted by the Romans for nautical and astronomical measurements. It was equal to 600 Greek or 625 Roman feet, or 125 Roman paces, or to 606 feet 9 inches English. This was also called the Olympic stadium, as being the exact length of the foot-race course at Olympia. Dr. W. Smith.

2. Hence, a race course; especially, the Olympic course for foot races.

3. A kind of telemeter for measuring the distance of an object of known dimensions, by observing the angle it subtends; especially (Surveying), a graduated rod used to measure the distance of the place where it stands from an instrument having a telescope, by observing the number of the graduations of the rod that are seen between certain parallel wires (stadia wires) in the field of view of the telescope; — also called stadia, and stadia rod.

If you read to the end you’ll have noticed something curious, namely the lack of the principal definition of estadio/stadium today, just a century later. The current definition would have developed from the second one in Webster’s, presumably as a result of the Olympic games that were revived in 1896. Also lacking in Webster’s was a scientific usage of estadio/stadium: ‘a stage in the life of an animal or plant.’ In particular, a stadium can be ‘the interval between two consecutive moultings in certain arthropods.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Nov 01, 2012 @ 22:26:51

    I’m still stuck at “span” – and wondering if the use of “span” as a unit of measurement might have arisen from the “pulling apart” of the hand to measure the distance from thumb to little finger.

    You’d surely have to be careful in your use of that measurement – I read it’s considered 8-9″, but the best I can do is 7″ across my right hand and 7-1/2″ across my left. Tape measures have some advantages.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Nov 02, 2012 @ 06:19:55

    And wouldn’t it be nice if English span and Greek span were related? The American Heritage Dictionary indicates no link, but it does trace English span back to a root that did in fact mean ‘to stretch, to pull,’ so the concept is the same. Curiouser and curiouser.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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