Having heard the commentators on NBC’s olympic coverage use phrases like “He’ll medal in theis event for sure!” I’d put the use of “medal” as a verb down to sports commentator enthusiasm which is a curious affliction rendering a persons speech potentially Yoda-like and almost certain to encourage Stephen Fry to spill his tea. I brought the topic up with co-workers, and they agreed that it was certainly possible “to medal” in the modern world.
All this “medaling” was making me uneasy, and my unease became definite concern after The Now Show contained a skit based on this very topic! A quick Google search revealed that although “medaling at the olympics” returned many hits most were media headlines using the phrase as a pun, so some more research was required.
Oxford English Dictionary (Concise, 2nd Edition) and the online Merriam-Webster dictionary both agree that “medal” is a noun, from the French ‘medaille’ and came in to use in the 16th century.
The online Merriam-Webster dictionary does state that “medal” could also be an intransitive verb meaning “to win a medal” but sites that the word only came into use in this context in 1979. Some further research turned up this Boston Globe article, with the following quote:
When I wrote about to medal a decade ago, the online Oxford English Dictionary didn’t list the intransitive verb — though it did have the transitive verb, which meant “bestow a medal upon,” with a quote from Lord Byron in 1822.
The June 2008 revision of the entry, though, dates our intransitive to medal to a 1966 edition of the Valley News in Van Nuys, Calif: “Divers from the Rita Curtis … Club gold-medaled in all of the events but three.” The Washington Post adopted it in 1979: “Our women are coming along beautifully — they’ve medalled well recently.”
So it looks like the votes are in, and although we shouldn’t really be meddling in language purely to make it easier for sports commentators and journalists to save a few words, it does appear that it is okay to medal at the Olympics. I’m not keen on it, and will still instinctively cringe at each commentator’s usage, but can safely report that we won’t hear anyone say “Did Tweddle medal in gymnastics?” because the women’s gymnastics event was won last night by China, ahead of the USA, and Japan.