I wonder what is the etymology of the word sport.

Vasmer says that it is from disport "amusement", a contraction from Middle English disporten from Old French desporter "to take away", "to distract from the work".

But Starostin's Starling site gives another etymology:

Eng. sport < Old Eng. spyrd, Goth. spɔrd-s "racing" < Proto-Germ. **spurd* < PIE **sperdh-* "run competition"

It gives as cognates Hittite ispart-, Avest. sparǝr- Old Indic -spūrdhán, spárdhate "competition"

So who is correct?

Note also that Vasmer connects Russian spor "dispute" to Avest pǝrǝt- and Old Indic pŕ̥tanā "struggle" so that the s- in PIE **sperdh-* could be s-mobile.

Also take into account the root **per-* meaning "first", "in front", "against" and Proto-Slavic perdъ "before, in front of" < PIE **per-dʰ-o*.

  • Does the Starling site give any explanation for the change of "d" to "t"? That seems unexpected to me – herisson Jul 13 '17 at 5:21
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    How about ‘spar’ as a possible origin of ‘sport’? Spar meaning to fight or box, but also referring to a ‘spar’ or long stick. Might the origins of sport come from military practice of some kind? I was reading anout the ‘Spartans’ and their hellishly hard regime where slaves relieved men from the need to work, so that men could focus on being an army. And boys were inducted into a harsh military regime at age 7. livescience.com/32035-sparta.html – Jelila Feb 16 '20 at 6:48

Of OE spyrd Bowsorth-Toller says,

The word glosses stadium (1) with the meaning a course :-- Ða ðe in spyrde iornaþ qui in stadio currunt, Rtl. 5, 33. (2) with the meaning a measure of distance :-- Swelce spyrdas fífténe (spyrdum fífténum, Lind.) quasi stadiis quindecim, Jn. Skt. Rush. 11, 18. Swelce spyrdo fífe and twoegentig quasi stadia .xxv., 6, 19. Ðara spyrda stadiorum, Lk. Skt. Lind. Rush. 24, 13. In all these passages the West-Saxon uses furlang. [Goth. spaurds (1) a course; (2) a distance: O. H. Ger. spurt stadium.]

It is not clear whether the 'racecourse' sense derives from the 'distance' sense or vice versa; the same is true of the Latin word it glosses, stadium, although the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests the Greek original of the Latin term suggests that the 'distance' sense was prior.

This is a very shaky foundation upon which to build an origin for ModE sport—especially since I find no evidence that the OE term survived into ME.

As OP points out, Middle English Dictionary gives sport(e with the senses:

  1. (a) Amusement, entertainment; pleasure, fun; also, an activity that brings pleasure or amusement; a pastime or game; also, ?a sexual exploit, an amorous deed [quot. ?c1450, 2nd]; don sportes, to play games; haven (taken) ~, take (one's) pleasure, have fun; ?participate in merrymaking; maken ~, create amusement, make sport; (b) a source of pleasure or delight; (c) joking; foolery; in ~, in jest; connen no ~, to engage in no foolery.

  2. Solace, consolation; also, ?a means of comfort or consolation; maken ~, to console (sb.), cheer up.

There are also related words, sportaunce, sportelet, sporten, sportful, sporting.

MED sees all of these as "Shortened form[s] of disport", "disporten, &c., which first appear in ME a generation earlier than sport(e and its relatives. For the noun MED gives the following senses:

  1. (a) An activity that offers amusement, pleasure, or relaxation; entertainment, merry-making, fun, recreation; maken ~, to entertain (sb.); taken ~, amuse oneself, have fun; (b) a pastime, sport, or game; also, the game of love, flirtation; (c) in ~, in jest.

  2. (a) Pleasure taken in an activity or enjoyment derived from it; haven ~, to take pleasure (in sth.), be gratified; (b) consolation, solace; a source of comfort; don ~, to cheer (sb.) up.

  3. (a) Deportment, conduct; customary behavior, custom, manner; (b) an instance of behavior, an act or activity; don ~, to do something.

  4. Departure; maken ~, to set out (for a place).

The first two of these senses are clearly identical with those of sport(e. They carry over into EME, whence they give rise to the modern senses.

Among the "disportes" mentioned by the MED citations are dice, reveling, minstrels singing songs and telling jests, and finding Venus on a bed of gold, as well as recreations which would be regarded as "sports" today, hawking, hunting, angling, archery.

None of the citations alludes to racing or reflects (except for one allusion to the "actes and disportes Olimpicalle") a sense of "competitive" sport.

And there is no other MED headword of the form sp?rt*, sp?rd*, spr?t*, or spr?d* which could be taken as derivative of spyrd.

It looks like the similarity of the OE term is coincidental, since it cannot be traced into ME.

  • What about "sporte" in ME? – Anixx Sep 20 '12 at 23:20
  • quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/… – Anixx Sep 20 '12 at 23:22
  • @Anixx Hah! I was under the impression that MED consolidated spellings under headwords ... let me look farther. ... No. Searches under sp?rt*, sp?rd*, spr?d* and spr?t* yield nothing derived or derivable from spyrd except your own reference. And in that entry the senses are the same as those given for disport, or derivative; and the earliest citations are a generation later. I'll modify my response, but stick by my answer. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 20 '12 at 23:44
  • Also take into account the Old Norse borrowing "sprint". – Anixx Sep 20 '12 at 23:49
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    @Anixx See my edited response. That spyrd has cognates in other languages tells us nothing about whether it has descendants in English. We can, unambiguously, trace ModE sport back to ME disport and thence to OF desporter, and desporter back to Lat porto; we cannot trace the ME back to any OE origin. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 21 '12 at 1:33

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