Word Matters Podcast

Taking an Ax—or Axe?—to the 'Podium' vs. 'Lectern' Debate

Word Matters, Episode 59

Today we're looking at two of the English language's most persistent questions. First, is there an actual difference between 'ax' and 'axe'? What's up with that? Then, the great debate continues to rage over what can be called a 'podium' and what is a 'lectern.'

Download the episode here.


Ammon Shea: Our job as lexicographers is to track the English language and all its glories and warts, its foibles, and all that. And it is really a lovely thing to do because it's endlessly entertaining.

Emily Brewster: The spelling A-X really just had a few good years in the late 20th century.

Coming up on Word Matters: a show for those who have an ax to grind about lecterns and podia, or podiums. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Whether you use it for chopping or throwing, we're curious. Does your ax have an E at the end, or not? Your answer might depend on when you started writing the word. The dominant spelling isn't what it always was. Next up, I'll take a wack at the story of the spellings of ax.

So, there's a household tool. It's an outdoor tool called an ax. Long-handled, heavy metal blade. You can spell it A-X or A-X-E. Peter and Ammon, how do you each spell this word?

Ammon Shea: It depends on how generous the E gods have been that month. I always just having innate feeling that whatever I say, it's going to be wrong, even when there's no wrong answer. I go with A-X.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, I would usually use it A-X.

Ammon Shea: A-X-E if I was feeling extra fancy that day.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, right? The E feels fancy. I agree, the E feels fancy. They're both totally fine. A-X, A-X-E, they are both completely fine. Noah Webster. in his 1828 An American Dictionary of the English Language, spelled it only, unsurprisingly given his penchant for simple spelling, he spelled it A-X, and then he wrote a note. "Improperly written as, 'Axe,'" A-X-E. This is in direct defiance to Samuel Johnson, who in 1755 in his dictionary of the English language, did not include the shortened form, just spelled A-X-E. But the E is not actually justifiable, certainly not in pronunciation. In theory, a terminal E influences the vowel, and we don't really have many examples of a terminal E influencing a vowel across the barrier of an X. But in theory, you could justify the E by pronouncing the word, "Aches," but nobody does.

And the E on the end of ax is also not justified by the word's etymology at all. So the Old English, it was the AE ligature called the Ash, C-S, is how you spelled the word ax, and then there is an Old High German, A-C-K-U-S. Latin, A-S-C-I-A. And even before that, it goes all the way back to a Greek, A-X-I-N-E, with a macron over the E. But there's no real, good, solid etymological argument for including the E, and yet the E spelling persists. And here's what I found completely fascinating when I was researching this. Noah Webster, of course, is responsible for many of the spelling difference says between British English and American English, as we have talked about many times. And I had thought, "Well, okay, well maybe the A-X spelling is the spelling that is dominant in American English, and the A-X-E spelling is the spelling that is dominant in non US English." But that's not at all the case. The spelling A-X really just had a few good years in the late 20th century, but A-X-E was the dominant spelling everywhere before then, and it is now.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting. Webster famously didn't like double letters and silent letters, and this would fall in the second category.

Ammon Shea: How did he spell, "Deluxe?"

Peter Sokolowski: That's a good question.

Emily Brewster: That is a very good question.

Peter Sokolowski: I can look it up in his-

Ammon Shea: Because that seems to me to be the only other common English word that ends with an X-E.

Emily Brewster: And you don't pronounce it de-loox.

Ammon Shea: De-lucks-e.

Peter Sokolowski: Deluxe unless you're Cole Porter. But he did not enter it.

Ammon Shea: Oh.

Peter Sokolowski: So that term may have been new. Interesting issue, there's a parallel here with the word adze. A-D-Z, or A-D-Z-E.

Ammon Shea: The wood cutting tool.

Peter Sokolowski: The wood cutting tool, which has a Germanic etymology. And that we give as a variant spelling, the more common one with an E, just as Emily just explained, and the less commonly one, just A-D-Z. It's interesting, these are parallel utensils and with a parallel spelling.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, that's very interesting.

Ammon Shea: They're both beloved by Scrabble players.

Emily Brewster: It's very helpful in the game of Scrabble to be able to do either one, for sure. A-X, that shorter spelling, was going strong in the 1980s and the 1990s. But after that point, it really starts to drop off, and there are two things that may have had an influence. We will never know for sure if they did or not. But the fact is that what spellings we prefer has a lot to do with the spellings that we encounter out in the wild. A spelling looks right, that's how you know whether or not to use a particular spelling. It has to look right. And also it helps if it doesn't have the wavy red line underneath it. In 1993, a movie came out, called, So I Married an Axe Murderer.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Oh.

Emily Brewster: And the makers of this movie chose to spell it A-X-E. And then in 2002, Unilever started selling Axe Body Spray in the United States. And that is also spelled A-X-E.

Ammon Shea: So we can blame this on dude-bros and Mike Myers. Is that what it all comes down to?

Emily Brewster: Only anecdotally, but sure.

Ammon Shea: Close enough for me.

Emily Brewster: And again, this is certainly not anything that we can prove, but we can point to these things and say, "Huh, that's interesting."

Peter Sokolowski: Well, "Familiarity," as David Crystal has said, "breeds content." The version that you see more frequently is the version that will become standard for you.

Emily Brewster: I do wonder also if the E just feels fancier. Maybe it smells better.

You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with some possibly disappointing news about the word podium. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at word matters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for The Word of The Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Let's say you're going to address a group of people to say, give a speech or read some poetry. You're going to stand on a raised platform, and you're going to stand behind a piece of furniture where you can lay out your notes and also stash a water bottle. What are you on? And what are you standing behind? You know where this is going, don't you? That's right. The great lectern/podium debate. Ammon sets it up.

Ammon Shea: Our job as lexicographers is to track the English language and all its glories and warts, and its foibles and all that. And it is really a lovely thing to do because it's endlessly entertaining. Seeing words change, semantic broadening shifts, functional shifts, the word changes, parts of speech, all these things are really like seeing incorporate little babies being born all the time. And then there are the incorporate drunken uncles who show up and ruin it for everybody all the time. In this case, that is whenever somebody uses the word podium to mean lectern, or vice versa. And suddenly, sizable portions of the English speaking people seem to think the world is burning. We turn to Twitter, we see things like, "You know how you can tell someone is stupid is when they say podium when they mean lectern. It was a lectern, not a podium. So-and-so is too stupid to know the difference." People really attach a great significance-

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Ammon Shea: To distinguishing between these two words. And so what happens is when somebody uses one to mean the other, and people come to our dictionary and look it up just so they can say, "Ha ha ha," they find out that we define podium sense 2B as, "lectern."

Peter Sokolowski: Lectern.

Ammon Shea: Suddenly-

Peter Sokolowski: How distressing.

Ammon Shea: Things feel very uncertain in life.

Emily Brewster: Now for people who really do conflate them, Ammon, you have to say what the prescribed difference is. But what are these things?

Ammon Shea: For people for whom this is deeply important, a podium is a thing upon which you stand when making an address. It's a dais, especially for an orchestra conductor. You stand on a podium, you stand at a lectern.

Peter Sokolowski: I see.

Ammon Shea: A lectern is a small piece of furniture, which is approximately waist or chest height. And it's the thing upon which you rest a book, and you read a speech or you read from a Bible, or something like that.

Emily Brewster: Or you hide behind it.

Ammon Shea: You hide behind the lectern. You have a microphone on the lectern, possibly. Although, a microphone on a stand could also be on a podium. But the main difference is that you stand on a podium, you stand at a lectern.

Emily Brewster: We also define podium as "lectern"...

Ammon Shea: Right, we do not define lectern as a podium, of course.

Emily Brewster: Nope.

Ammon Shea: So it really only goes one way. And the reason we do not define lectern as "podium," but we do define podium as "lectern," is because, and I don't want to ruin anybody's day, it's because that is how a large portion of the English speaking people use this word. It is very common for people to use podium to mean the thing that you stand at. Very few people say, "He was standing on the lectern." You really don't hear that. But people often say, "He was standing on the podium," and they often say, "He was standing at the podium." Or, "She was standing at the podium," or, "She was standing on the podium." You never hear, "She was standing on the lectern."

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hm.

Ammon Shea: So we don't do this to hurt anyone's feelings. It's cataloging the way that the English people are using it and have for a considerable length of time.

Peter Sokolowski: And this distinction that is drawn, I think, partly comes from people who respect and know the etymologies. Because lectern comes from "to read," in Latin. A lector is at the lectern.

Emily Brewster: The root, legere, meaning, "to read."

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And podium has that pod, which is the same as ped, which means, "foot."

Ammon Shea: I have no sympathy for etymological purists because they're only purists when it serves their purposes.

Peter Sokolowski: No, quite true.

Ammon Shea: The people who insist that decimate properly means, "to kill 1 out of every 10," never say that December is actually the tenth month of the year.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Ammon Shea: Suddenly it's the 12th month of the year. Dec is fine for 12 when it's Christmas time.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's a name for that. We call it, etymological fallacy.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. I call it something a little more rude than that, but let's stick with that for now.

Peter Sokolowski: Linguists call this etymological fallacy, and the point being, English is this mongrel language that is living and changing, and using the Latin roots from which these words were built is not the way that we define them today.

Emily Brewster: This conflation of these two particular terms, though, is a relatively new phenomenon. It's from the mid 20th century.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: So-

Ammon Shea: It's not as though people have been calling the lectern a podium for hundreds and hundreds of years now.

Emily Brewster: No, and the fact is that, really, the word lectern is just used less and less. Nobody really likes the word lectern, and maybe that's because it's so hard to spell. I always want to make the second vowel a U instead of an E.

Peter Sokolowski: Lec-turn, yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, so I'll just use podium. And for the plural, the plural of podium, you have the option of using podia, which is really fun.

Ammon Shea: Sure. Or podiums. Emily, can you think of any of other similar are related pieces of furniture or furnishings like this? Where one is distinguished subtly, or not so subtly from the other?

Emily Brewster: I don't know. Is a couch different from a sofa? A loveseat?

Ammon Shea: Is the difference between an ottoman and a hassock?

Emily Brewster: Oh.

Ammon Shea: People don't really-

Peter Sokolowski: A tuffet.

Ammon Shea: Right? A tuffet. A footrest.

Emily Brewster: A poof.

Peter Sokolowski: A loveseat and a sofa and a chaise longue, or chaise lounge, as it were. We have a lot of names for these things, but this is also the case of podium/lectern. This is how language evolves. It may be that centuries from now, people have to explain that a podium used to be separate from this thing that is called a lectern. We may be seeing a slow evolution of the language.

Ammon Shea: What I think is interesting about this is that, and I use, "Interesting," in a very broad sense of the word because I'm using it to mean irritating and boring. But what I think is interesting about this is that it is very clear from context what is meant. And it's clear from the surrounding words. If you hear somebody say, "He was standing at the podium," you know that what he really secretly means is lectern. He's at the piece of furniture. And if you hear somebody say, "She was standing on the podium," then you know it's likely that she was standing on the raised platform. And the fact that many people get so exercised about this, I'm reminded of when Henry Kissinger was said to have said, "Why do academics fight so much?" The answer being, of course, "Because the stakes are so low." I feel like that is why people fight about this so much. It really does not matter whether you call it a podium or lectern, as long as your intent and your meaning is clear. And I think in almost all cases, it really is clear.

Emily Brewster: People like to be right about the distinctions that they make.

Peter Sokolowski: For sure. We don't talk about this a lot, but one reason people look up words in the dictionary is to correct somebody else. That's a very frequent use. However, and I will say in the defense of those people, there is a distinction that is easily drawn using these words. And I think because it's easily drawn, they want to perpetuate it. There are other words that we more or less arbitrarily distinguish like, further and farther, for example. Some people use them slightly differently. And I find that to be a useful distinction, for example. I would not impose it on anyone else, but I find it useful, only in my own mind.

Ammon Shea: But you can distinguish between bring and take.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a good one.

Ammon Shea: And there are circumstances in which one could argue that something is being lost or obscured by using the wrong one. However, there are also a number of other cases where the surrounding words, such as, "To," or, "From," make it very, very clear.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Ammon Shea: And I think that's the point at which if one insists that, "That is the wrong word, even though I understood precisely what you meant, you said it in the wrong manner," I feel like that is an unwelcome approach to language.

Emily Brewster: Right. Are you trying to communicate meaning? Or are you trying to communicate your own erudition?

Peter Sokolowski: And I think this brings up what a really good copy editor is, which is someone with a very broad sense of correctness. In other words, understanding these distinctions, but also understanding when it's important to draw them, and when doing that draws attention to your choice of words, rather than the ideas they're expressing.

Ammon Shea: I think Emily brought up a really excellent point here, which is that lectern is becoming much less common than it once was.

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hm.

Ammon Shea: And so I think that there is the strong possibility that were one to insist on this as the precise, correct word over the course of time, it would itself become less and less clear. Were one to insist on an increasingly archaic or obsolete sense or use of a word, then it's really just about your own correctness rather than about the efficacy of communication.

Peter Sokolowski: There's another kind of platform with another Latin word, which is rostrum. R-O-S-T-R-U-M, rostrum, and we do allow the plural, rostra, along with rostrums. And it comes from, "A platform for speakers in the Roman forum," so far so good. But here's the interesting part: "Decorated with the beaks of captured ships." And the beaks of captured ships, that's the etymology of this word because a ship's beak in Latin was rostrum, or rostrum, from rodere, the verb meaning, "to gnaw." And rodere, meaning "to gnaw," is the etymology of the word rodent, which has a gnawing beak.

Ammon Shea: Wow.

Peter Sokolowski: Amazing.

Emily Brewster: Who wants to stand on a rodent?

Ammon Shea: I think it's obvious that just middlebrows use podium or podia, and real highbrows use rostra or rostrums.

Emily Brewster: But then there's also dais.

Peter Sokolowski: Dais is a great word, and actually a hard word to pronounce, isn't it?

Emily Brewster: I have to admit something here. I typically pronounce it, "Die-us," so that-

Ammon Shea: And I always misspell it, too.

Emily Brewster: But our dictionary gives a little label at the dais pronunciation that says non-standard.

Ammon Shea: I thought the label said, "Come on, Emily, get it together."

Peter Sokolowski: Dais comes from, "Discus," a high table from the Latin word meaning disk, dish. Dais, something flat.

Ammon Shea: Somewhere out there, there's probably a weird little subsection of Twitter where people argue viciously, whether it's the dais or the rostrum that the speaker was standing at. "Only stupid people say Dais." Or, "The uncultured use rostrum."

Emily Brewster: Let's hope they don't find our email address. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for The Word of The Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voight. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!