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I was speaking of skiing when I was in USA, and I discovered that one type of ski is called cross country skiing.

What is the origin of that phrase, which is not really referring to skiing through countries?

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There are two completely different types of skiiing. "Nordic" aka "Langlauf" aka "cross-country" is done on trails made for the purpose on flat ground (in the "open countryside"). Your heel is not attached to the skis. "Downhill" aka "Alpine" skiing is done using ski-lifts and a mountain. The two are totally unrelated. (They are as different as say hiking and gymnastics; there is utterly no connection in equipment or technique.) – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 14:01
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Etymology online gives the following elucidating definition:

also cross country, crosscountry; 1767, of roads, from cross (v.) + country, or aphetic for across-country. Of flights, from 1909.

i.e. It does not refer to movement across borders of countries, but rather across a single country (at some scale).

So, "cross-country skiing" can basically be interpreted as "skiing across [significant] terrain". Specifically, it does of course involve a very specific technique, different to that of downhill skiing. Analogies can be made with "cross-country running" as well.

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And specific skis, boots and bindings as well – mgb Apr 4 '11 at 19:45
    
"but rather across a single country" utterly incorrect. "country" in the sense of "countryside", not "a nation". – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 13:52
    
Note however that "cross-country running" is absolutely, completely, identical to any other running. Alpine skiing and Nordic skiing are as different as, say, surfing versus canoeing, or bowling versus darts. – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 14:03
    
@JoeBlow You misinterpret my answer. Read the next paragraph. – Noldorin Mar 16 at 15:11

It's using the term cross-country not in the sense of national boundaries, but open countryside. Basically, it means skiing through fields, pastures, open range, whatever. It is contrasted with downhill skiing in which skiers follow a (usually) prepared track down a mountainside.

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What is the origin of that phrase, which is not really referring to skiing through countries?

The phrase isn't referring to a political country, but country in the sense of the "outdoors" -- the rural area outside of cities and towns. It is the same sense as such phrases as country roads, back country, Country and Western music, etc.

Cross-country skiing refers to skiing which historically took place across significant stretches of rural landscape, rather than up and down one hill or mountain (downhill skiing). The phrase has been applied to this technique of skiing even if it takes place on a well-groomed city track or trail.

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Cross-Country as an adjective has two meanings. Here it means "Taking place outside roads"

Examples:

Cross-country running

Cross-country Skiing

We took a cross-country route instead of the motorway.

Also check this link.

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It has no connection at all to "outside roads". There is downhill or mountainside skiiing which takes place on mountainsides. (Using a particular type of equipment, and, ski-lifts.) There is langlauf, "countryside" or "open country" skiing which takes place on open flat countryside. (Using totally different equipment, and no ski-lifts.) 99% of langlauf is on carefully prepared roads or trails for the purpose. (Indeed, 99% of downhill skiiing is on carefully prepared trails (on the side of a mountain) for that purpose). – Joe Blow Mar 16 at 13:55

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