Have you ever had a conversation along these lines with a non-runner? How do you usually respond?
Non-runner: Oh, you run marathons?
You: Yes, I’ve run one [two, five, twenty].
Non-runner: Oh, me too! I just did a 5K last weekend.
You: What the f…?
As far as I can tell, many non-runners assume that “marathon” is synonymous with “road race,” regardless of the actual distance. In fact, I once had a hairdresser tell me that he ran “a marathon every weekend.”
As a runner, do you scoff and then launch into a lengthy explanation of the marathon’s origins with ill-fated Pheidippides? Or do you grimace and nod, hoping that your thin-lipped approval doesn’t come across as whole-hearted validation?
Meanwhile, perhaps you silently shout, “No! That’s not a marathon! I’ve run 26.2 miles, not you! Me! Me!!!!!”
Admit it, you’ve done this. Or maybe you’re not a snob with a huge but incredibly fragile ego like I am….
On the other side of the world, Koreans actually use the word 마라톤 (‘ma-ra-ton’) to designate a race of any distance. When I had to tell my Korean teacher that I did a “5k marathon” over the weekend, I felt dirty, as if the running powers-that-be would smite me on the spot for my hubris.
Meanwhile, a Korean friend of mine keeps asking me to do a 5- or 10-K marathon with her. So far, I’ve kept quiet about it, but I wonder if I should correct her.
Borrowing is a documented and frequently studied linguistic phenomenon, which often occurs with a change in meaning of the original word. BINGO! For example, French has borrowed jogging, but it refers to a “jogging suit,” rather than the actual activity. [Right, France. Jogging suits? Really?]
Let’s consider for a moment all of the loanwords whose meanings English has changed. The word “panini” means “sandwiches” in Italian, so really, when we say “panini sandwich,” we are asking for “sandwiches sandwich.“ Likewise, “chai tea” is “tea tea,” and “naan bread” is “bread bread.” However, most English-speakers aren’t aware of this redundancy because the borrowed word represents a specific type of a larger category.
So is it really fair to get indignant when Koreans tell me about their “5K marathons” or say that a “half” is a “marathon”? If the marathon means something else in Korean, then it is not as if Koreans are trying to inflate their accomplishments falsely. I shouldn’t get my panties all in a bunch about it.
What do YOU think? How would you react? Would you stay silent or jump at the opportunity for a little English/running history lesson?
Share your funny “marathon” story in the comments!
Also: I hear it’s rather hot in the US these days! How is everyone faring with the soaring temperatures? If you’re planning on a fall race, make sure to stay hydrated while doing your training runs. Remember: You can’t run a PR in the fall if you die from heat exhaustion in the summer!