What's in a Word | All Blogs


A physical a-n-d mental workout

By Debra Dobbins

If German teenagers go to a gymnasium, do they work out or attend classes?

If you guessed the latter, you’re right. In Germany the word “gymnasium” means a place of learning similar to an American high school. If Germans want to exercise in a building, they go to a training center (Schulungszentrum).

How this word split into two different meanings, depending upon one’s culture, has an interesting background.

It came from an ancient Greek word, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History. Asimov notes that a gymnasium was originally a place in which athletes trained for the Olympic Games and other great sporting events.

In a country that valued mental acuity as much as physical prowess, Asimov continues, gymnasiums also drew men “interested in intellectual discussion.” Eventually, the word “gymnasium” came to have a dual meaning as a place in which both the body and mind were exercised.

Over the centuries the word’s meaning began to reflect different perceptions in different cultures. In America, we emphasize just the physical meaning of the word, whereas in Germany, its intellectual meaning is used to denote roughly our equivalent of high school.
 

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