Today’s investigation into the Oxford English Dictionary concerns two words, with a small hope that we can figure out what it is we talk in front of, or on, or near, when we’re before our students.
The handsome Latinate word podium originally referred to a raised platform that provided a protected seating area for the emperor. It is, of course, related to the root pod-, from the word for foot, and most senses of the word invoke the idea of a place on which one stands and is viewed.
By 1899, a podium was a smallish elevation on stage, a device making it possible for the audience to see the speaker more easily. By 1948, an athlete might mount a podium to be crowned with laurels. That same year, it seems, one was able to podium (presumably because one had medaled).
Since the last days of the Roman Empire, the term has drifted into architectural language to describe various arrangements, what in 1962 The Times called the “podium-and-tower pattern” of design. So podium has something to do with elevation, separation, and protection.
The word lectern arrives into English in the 14th century as lettorne, “a reading or singing-desk in a church,” to which the OED’s first definition nicely adds “often in the form of an eagle with outspread wings supporting a column.” (Check for eagles when you teach tomorrow.)
The association of lectern with reading and writing (from Latin lectio, to read) seems clear enough. What most of us refer to as a desk might have been described as a lectern in earlier periods.
By the way, the OED teases us with an undated reference “Chiefly Sc.” (Scottish) to lectern as “a reading-desk in a private house.” I turn to my Scottish Lingua Franca readers to corroborate the presence of such lecterns in Aberdeen or Uig.
The dictionary’s definitions and examples don’t come closer to our own day than 1902, but I would have thought that the use of lectern for the structure at which one lectures might be an easy addition to the developing history of the word.
So to my question: When you stand before your students, do you do so on a raised platform? When you turn to your lecture notes or, more frequently, the laptop on which your PowerPoint resides, do your find them on a raised structure beside or behind which you stand? What do you call that thing?
Some teachers refer to it as a podium, some as a lectern. IT technicians and cyberpedagogues might call the structure, fitted out with a keyboard and monitor and buttons to control descending screens and ambient lighting, a teaching station. Sort of a brave lighthouse of knowledge in the vast, dark sea of the classroom.
Is there any chance of regularizing our usage? It shouldn’t be difficult: If you stand on it, it’s a podium; if you read from it, it’s a lectern. And of course, there might be a lectern from which you read placed on the podium upon which you stand.
Maybe it’s a distinction we’re in the process of losing, but I like to think that confusing them is an instance of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth, or at least near it.
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Correction (11/17/2015, 2:30 p.m.): The paper quoted about the podium-and-tower design pattern was The Times of London, not The New York Times. This post has been updated to reflect that.
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