What Do the Olympic Rings Mean?

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

"It represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time."

In 1894, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin—a French aristocrat and intellectual who had previously attempted to incorporate more physical education in schools—convened a congress in Paris with the goal of reviving the ancient Olympic Games (an idea Coubertin first introduced at a USFSA meeting in 1889). The congress agreed on proposals for a modern Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee was soon formalized and given the task of planning the 1896 Athens Games.

After the 1912 Stockholm Games—the first Games featuring athletes from all five inhabited parts of the world—a design of five interlocked rings, drawn and colored by hand, appeared at the top of a letter Coubertin sent to a colleague. Coubertin used his ring design as the emblem of the IOC's 20th anniversary celebration in 1914. A year later, it became the official Olympic symbol.

The rings were to be used on flags and signage at the 1916 Games, but those games were canceled because of the ongoing World War. The rings made a belated debut at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium.

baron-c

Coubertin explained his design in 1931:

"A white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red ... is symbolic; it represents the five inhabited continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colors are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time."

Coubertin used a loose interpretation of "continent" that included Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. He never said nor wrote that any specific ring represents a specific continent.

Because the rings were originally designed as a logo for the IOC's 20th anniversary and only later became a symbol of the Olympics, it's also probable, according to historian David Young, that Coubertin originally thought of the rings as symbols of the five Games already successfully staged.

ANCIENT RINGS? 

Popular myth (and an academic article) has it that the rings were inspired by a similar, ancient design found on a stone at Delphi, Greece. This "ancient" design, however, is really just a modern prop.

For the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, Carl Diem, president of the organizing committee, wanted to relay the Olympic Flame from its lighting point in Olympia to the Olympic stadium in Berlin. Diem, it seems, had a flair for theatrics, and included in the relay a stop at Delphi's ancient stadium for a faux-ancient Greek torchbearers' ceremony complete with a faux-ancient, 3-foot-tall stone altar with the modern ring design chiseled into its sides.

After the ceremony, the torch runners went on their way, but no one ever removed the stone from the stadium. Two decades later, British researchers visiting Delphi noticed the ring design on the stone. They concluded that the stone was an ancient altar, and thought the ring design had been used in ancient Greece and now formed "a link between ancient and modern Olympics."

The real story behind the altar was later revealed, and "Carl Diem's Stone" was moved from the stadium and placed near the ticketed entrance to the historic site.

The inspiration for Coubertin's design seems to be a little more modern. Four years before he convened his Olympic congress, he had become president of the French sports-governing body, the Union des Sociétés Françaises de Sports Athlétiques (USFSA). The Union was formed from the merging of two smaller sporting bodies, and to symbolize this, a logo of two interlocking rings—one red and one blue, on a white background—was created and displayed on the uniforms of USFSA athletes.

"It seems quite obvious," says historian Robert Barney in a 1992 Olympic Revue article, "that Coubertin's affiliation with the USFSA led him to think in terms of interlocked rings or circles when he applied his mind towards conceiving a logo ... indeed, a ring-logo that would symbolize his Olympic Movement's success up to that point in time.... Circles, after all, connote wholeness, the interlocking of them, continuity."

LORD OF THE RINGS

The IOC takes their rings very seriously, and the symbol is subject to very strict usage rules and graphic standards, including:

The area covered by the Olympic symbol (the rings) contained in an Olympic emblem (e.g. the 2008 Games emblem) can't exceed one-third of the total area of the emblem.
*
The Olympic symbol contained in an Olympic emblem has to appear in its entirety (no skimping on rings!) and can't be altered in any way.
*
The rings can be reproduced in a solid version (for single color reproduction in blue, yellow, black, green, red, white, gray, gold, silver, or bronze) or an interlocking version (interlaced from left to right; and reproduced in any of the aforementioned colors or full color, in which case the blue, black and red rings are on top and the yellow and green are on the bottom).
*
For reproduction on dark backgrounds, the rings must be a monochromatic yellow, white, gray, gold, silver, or bronze; full color on a dark background is not allowed.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

iStock
iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER