July 19, 2015
Our gift of oratory should not surprise you. We have committed uncountable acts of locquence and are ever-ready to deliver a toast, exhortation, or proclamation when invited to do so — and even when we haven’t been.
But what might surprise you, gentle reader, is that we have never once stood behind a podium whilst speaking publicly. That is because one stands on a podium, not behind it.
Let us allay your shock with some definitions. A podium is a platform of modest height upon which people stand. Those of lazier tongues might opt to call such a thing a riser (or rostrum), but this choice is poor and lacks sufficient accuracy for our liking. A riser is typically a temporary affair assembled for use in theatre, state fairs, or other pastimes beloved by hoi polloi.
Podia (from the Ancient Greek πούς or “foot”) imply a sense of ceremonial gravitas. Consider the podium’s role in the Olympic games. Or in architecture as a base upon which columns sit.
So now you might ask: what is that wooden box behind which the valedictorian addressed your graduating class as you sat there watching, shoulders slumped with the knowledge that you could have tried harder?
It is obviously a lectern; its linguistic provenance from the Old Latin lectrum which itself derives from legere, meaning “to read.”
Thus we are equipped with a useful if ungainly mnemonic: Podia are for feet, lecterns are for ‘reads’. During your next address, you may not know what you’re talking about, but you may confidently assert what you are speaking behind.