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Written records of swimming date back to near 2000 BC, however, nowhere are strokes or techniques mentioned, children were simply taught to swim. A record from between 2160 BC and 1780 BC from an Egyptian nobleman says “his children took swimming lessons with the king’s children” (Colwin 4). In addition, many passages from the Biblical Old Testament mention swimming or the act of swimming; such as in the old testament book of Isaiah: “as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim” (KJV Isa 25:11).
Until around the 1500s, no swimming manuals teaching specific techniques existed. In 1559, Sir Everard Digby wrote, in Latin, A short introduction for to learne to swimme. Later Christofer Middleton translated Sir Digby’s work into the common English “for the better in|struction of those who vnderstand not the Latine tongue” (Digby 1). Digby wrote instructions on how to swim “like a dog” and “like a dolphin” as well as many other forms (Digby table of contents). From there, other manuals were written to further refine strokes.
While swimming originates as an old pastime, until the early 1800s competitive swimming’s history did not exist because competitive swimming itself did not exist. Up until then, swimming acted as a pleasurable pastime intended more for relaxation than exercise. That mentality shifted during the 19th century in Britain with the opening of St. George’s Baths in 1828, the first indoor public pool. Following that in 1837, the British National Swimming Society made many more indoor pools and began holding swimming competitions (Sharma 1).
While the sport remained on the back burner for several decades it steadily grew in popularity until swimming debuted on a global scale in the Grecian Olympics of 1896. In recent decades, athletes such as Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin, Katie Ladecky, and Missy Franklin have rocketed the swimming world into becoming one of the most televised sports during the summer Olympics.
The language the sport of competitive swimming employs many words from non-aquatic sources. For example, the butterfly stroke, though allegedly invented in 1933 by Brooklyn swimmer Henry Myers (Colwin 30). Instead the butterfly stroke derives its name from the butterfly insect since the technique somewhat resembles that of its namesake.
Several other words in swimming’s lexicon follow the same mentality. Named not for who invented the technique, but rather for what it looks like. Kicks such as the dolphin and whip kick when categorized in this way provide pristine examples for this method. The dolphin kick looks like that of a dolphin’s tail moving up and down in the water. The whip kick, sometimes called the frog kick, also makes sense because as human legs perform the kick they mimic the action of frog legs.
The swim strokes themselves hold other examples of words coming from non-aquatic sources. Butterfly (previously explained), backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle all have nothing to do with water. The back and breast strokes seem to explain themselves, one executed while swimming on your back and the other executed while swimming with your chest or breast side of your body facing downward in the water. While the easiest to swim, freestyle tends to exists as a more complex term to understand. Technically breast, back, and fly exist as alternate strokes for the freestyle though usually traditionally performed as the complete reverse of backstroke. The stroke of free takes on the dictionary definition of “enjoying personal rights or liberty” (“free”), which allows swimmers to swim whatever stroke they deem the easiest or the fastest for themselves.
Most of the words in the following lexicon find their roots in Germanic languages. Old Norse, Old Dutch, Old English, and even Old Frisian boast the origin of these words. Invented in Britain, competitive swimming has its lexical language background in these and other Proto-Germanic roots.
Of the words in the following lexicon only five can have their origins traced back to Latin, French, or Greek. Of the five outliers, three are Latinate in origin. ‘Dolphin’ derived from a term for the animal and the constellation ‘dolphinus’, ‘paddles’ from the Medieval Latin term ‘padela’, and ‘cap’ from the word cappa. The Old French word ‘touch’ from ‘tochier’ joins with a Germanic word ‘pod’ to make the compound ‘tochierpod’ or ‘touchpad’. Finally, swimming gets its word ‘cards’ from the Greek word ‘khartes’.
Verbs and nouns entirely comprise the lexicon list, evidence for this observation lies in the reasoning that verbs and nouns describe either an action or a piece of equipment. However, three words defy normal constructs of language. ‘Dolphin’, ‘whip’, and ‘flutter’ are normally used in language as a noun and two verbs respectively. In swimming, these words take on the role of an adjective because they are describing the type of kick used in a stroke (the dolphin kick in butterfly, the whip kick in breaststroke, and the flutter kick in backstroke and freestyle).
Swimming, with its complex history of starting as a leisure activity and evolving into a competitive sport, becomes a wonderful example of how a language can adapt its words to fit a new activity. In addition to creating a new lexicon, a competitive swimmer may ignore old definitions as new definitions are created such as the case of ‘dolphin’. The following lexicon presents a collection of twenty swimming terms that demonstrate all of what has been previously written.
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