You stood on the lectern? Your balance beats mine!

You stood on the lectern? Your balance beats mine!


I was delighted when I checked the Grammar Rules posts at today. Robert Lee Brewer’s post featured three of my favorite furies among words worth defending: lectern, podium, and pulpit.

While Brewer’s examples are clear and well worth reading, I’d like to expand on them by looking at the roots of the words.

Lectern is related to lecture, lectionary, and other words relating to reading. My Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary reports that lectern is from the Middle English letteron and Old French letterin.

Doesn’t that make it simple to remember that lecterns are where you place your letters, not your feet?

Podium, on the other hand — or foot — is what you stand on. You may have seen the videos of Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the U.S. when she didn’t have a tall enough podium, and she did have a tall lectern. The result? Her purple-and-white-striped hat was all that was visible over the microphones.

Maybe someone misunderstood the definitions of lectern and podium on that occasion. But podium should be the easier one: Like podiatric, podiatrist, even pedal, it’s involved with feet. My Webster’s dictionary says it’s from Latin via Greek’s podion, a little foot. Of course, my fellow French-speakers will be reminded of pied, the French word for foot.

Pulpits are a bit different; the word is generally used in religious situations and places. I read psalms and prayers sometimes at my home church, and I step up on a podium and put my prayer notes on the lectern at the center of the front of the room when I’m ready to read. But when I recited a poem at a concert at church, the speakers went to the pulpit, which is off to one side, up some stairs, and lit differently than the center lectern. I put a copy of the poem on the lectern that night, but I had it so committed to memory that I didn’t need to look at it. On the other hand, I was nervous enough that I can’t remember whether I stepped on a podium when I walked into the pulpit.

So if you have a story about reciting something and standing on the lectern, your balance is definitely better than mine. Either that or you were standing on the podium.


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Margaret H. Laing

I moved to Chicago from the south suburbs in 1986. I have diverse interests, but I love writing about what I’m interested in. Whether it’s a personal interest or part of my career, the correct words to get the idea across are important to me. I love words and languages — French and Scottish words enrich my American English. My career has included years as a journalist and years working in museums, and the two phases were united by telling stories. I’m serious about words and stories. So here I am, ready to tell stories about words and their languages.

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