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If this has been previously asked I'd be delighted to be pointed to that answer but despite searching I can't find an explanation.

I'm trying to construct some lexemes to describe sports.

It's bothering me no end that in official references (eg olympics: https://www.olympic.org/sports) they seem grammatically chaotic:

  • sport

    • athletics

    • badminton

    • gymnastics

    • swimming

Surely an "etymologically consistent" listing would look like:

  • sport

    • athletic

    • badminton

    • gymnastic

    • swim

or alternatively

  • sport

    • athleticking

    • badmintoning

    • gymnasticing

    • swimming

(or something)

If someone would be able to explain these inconsistencies it would provide a great deal of relief.

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  • 3
    Hey, I'm not your downvoter! It's a fair question. It's just that English has evolved using all kinds of source material and is often far from logical or predictable.
    – Dan
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:04
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    Part of this is answered by this question on the etymology of -ics.
    – Laurel
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:12
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    I believe that the reason for the plural names is that those areas of sporting endeavour contain multiple disciplines (athletics, gymnastics) whereas some of the singular ones consist of variations on the same skill set and some of these have 'ing' endings (swimming, boxing) although some do not (archery is an example). The remaining ones are tournaments of a single named sport (badminton, tennis, beach volleyball)
    – BoldBen
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:12
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    Another part of this would be answered by the question in sport vs sports (if it had any good answers).
    – Laurel
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:16
  • 9
    Uh, we're talking about ENGLISH here. Consistency is a fiction.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 27, 2021 at 0:41

6 Answers 6

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You are looking at three different categories of activities:

  • Groups, like gymnastics or athletics. Just as BoldBen said in their answer, those are actually a set of different activities (e.g. for athletics: vaulting, long jumping, high jumping, running, throwing, hurling and so on).
  • Activities described by the act that is being performed, such as the ones listed in the previous example. Swimming and skiing are also on this category and so is curling, even if the etymology is not certain. Those are usually used for sports where a single athletic act (to bowl a ball = bowling) or activity (to swim = swimming) is required or where it really defines the sport.
  • Proper names of sports, like pool, basketball, badminton, tennis, soccer, football, volleyball and so on. These can't be properly described with a single -ing word, because they are complex activities that are not defined by a single act (what do soccer player do? They run, they tackle, they kick, they block). As a consequence, we "play" those sports, we don't "do" them, so we can not say we're "badmintoning", we say we're "playing badminton" instead.
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    So basically: there are a few different families of naming conventions, and when there was a choice, different people at different times chose to apply one that stuck to any particular sporting event / activity. Mar 27, 2021 at 14:22
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    I think your first bullet point is off the mark. -ics is a standalone suffix that can mean "study, knowledge, skill, practice" or "characteristic actions or activities" see www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/-ics ... there is no such thing as a "gymnastic" and indeed the word "gymnastics" is singular.
    – ajd
    Mar 27, 2021 at 23:09
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    @ajd The terms "athletic pursuits" and "gymnastic exercises" are both plural. I believe that "athletics" is a short form of "athletic pursuits" (or activities) and gymnastics is short for "gymnastic exercises". The nouns were coined from the adjectives.
    – BoldBen
    Mar 28, 2021 at 0:51
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I can explain some of the -ing forms. Swimming, skiing, boxing, canoeing, fencing, diving, sailing, rowing, shooting, wrestling, are things people might do (or might once have done in the past—who fences in their everyday life these days?) outside the context of sport. For these sports, the tendency seems to be use the -ing form for the name of the sport as well.

This doesn't explain curling, but there are exceptions to every rule.

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I originally posted this as a comment because it is an opinion and I couldn't think of any way back it up. As there have been other answers without supporting references I thought I would add this as an answer.

I believe that the reason for the plural names is that those areas of sporting endeavour contain multiple disciplines (athletics, gymnastics) where the different events require different skill sets. In the case of athletics most runners do not jump or throw things, most jumpers do not throw or run (except to gain momentum for their jumps) and most throwers do not jump or run except to gain momentum for their throws. The exceptions are the tri-, pent-, hept- and decathletes.

At the other extreme there are people who compete in named sports where there is a knockout or league competition but they are competing multiple times in a single named sport (badminton, tennis and beach volleyball for example)

In between there is a class of sports with many different competitions which all require excellence in the same skill (examples are swimming, boxing, cycling and fencing)

There are still a few sports where the name does not fit this pattern (for instance horse riding which could qualify for an 'ics' ending by its diversity), archery (which would have to have an 'ing' ending if it were to fit the pattern) and Karate and Tae Kwon Do (which would have an 'ing' ending if the categorisation were strictly enforced) but the names of these sports are historic. As Dan said in a comment above "life is messy".

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The choice of which form to use often comes down to what sounds ‘nice’ while not sounding confusing. I expect that the etymology of each term will depend somewhat on which words were already considered to be established when the sport was named.

For example, athletic sounds like an adjective, while athletics doesn’t. If you started with athlete and wanted to know what kind of carnival they might participate in, you might try to call it an athletic carnival. But to keep it from being contrasted with a boring carnival or a sedentary one purely by substituting a word that looks like it is of the same part of speech, you might use the plural athletics.

Likewise with gymnastics.

Archery doesn’t have this problem, so the ‘singular’ form works. Swimming is a counterexample, but I suspect the more common / older sporting names are derived from verb usage: “I am going *to swim” - “I am going swimming” - “We are having a swimming competition”.

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    This is a great answer. Sometimes people look for logical or formal reasons for things whereas aesthetics and convenience are just as likely to play a role.
    – barbecue
    Mar 27, 2021 at 15:08
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    Yes, I think much of this usage is arbitrary, likely set at some time by some influential speaker (or editor, or writer) and followed out of custom. "Sport", singular, is UK usage; in the US and Canada papers have "Sports" pages and TV has "Sports" categories. But UK students study "Maths", where North Americans study "Math".
    – CCTO
    Mar 27, 2021 at 19:06
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Not an answer as such, but it would appear the "ing" endings are Old or Middle English, the "ie"/"y" endings are Old French, while the "ic" endings are Latin (presumably from the Greek).

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"Gymnastics" and "athletics" when referring to the sports are not plural. One says that gymnastics is a sport, not that gymnastics are a sport. I believe that these words have the -ics suffix which denotes a skill or practice (like "linguistics" or "physics").

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