The Olympic Torch – a linguistic perspective

25 Juil

As the 2012 Summer Olympic Games Opening Ceremony approaches, so the Olympic torch approaches London. When the torch enters the stadium, this Friday, July 27, and is used to light up the cauldron, the Games will be declared open.

The Olympic torch being carried on a hand drawn canal boat across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on May 30 in Llangollen, Wales. 8,000 torchbearers cover 8,000 miles to bring the Olympic torch to its destination. | Credits: Christopher Furlong/ Getty Image

An Olympic flame torchbearer in front of St Michael’s Mount on May 19 in Cornwall, England. The Olympic flame is carried on a 70-day relay involving 8,000 torchbearers covering 8,000 miles. | Credits: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The Olympic Games are named after the town of Olympia, where the ancient games took place from 776 BC to 393 AD. The first significant attempt to emulate the ancient Olympic Games was the L’Olympiade de la République, a national Olympic festival held annually from 1796 to 1798 in Revolutionary France.  The official modern Games first took place in Athens in 1896, and they have since then rotated every 4 years between different cities. Since 1936 the torch relay from Olympia has taken place, symbolizing the historical continuity of the Games. Several months prior to each Olympic ceremony, the flame  is lit in Olympia in a ceremony to commemorate ancient Greek rituals. A woman assumes the role of an ancient Greek priestess, she ignites a torch and she then lights the torch of the first relay bearer.

Un feu brûle à nouveau aux JO (Jeux Olympiques) d’été de Los Angeles en 1932. À la cérémonie de clôture, une citation de Pierre de Coubertin apparaît sur le tableau d’affichage :

« Que la torche olympique suive son cours à travers les âges pour le bien d’une humanité toujours plus ardente, courageuse et pure ».

“May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure. »
Pierre de Coubertin

From Olympia the torch is passed from one runner to another (and also flown across the sea) until it reaches the host city’s Olympic stadium. The photo below shows the Olympic Cauldron, named Ice and Fire, lit up at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.

Olympic Cauldron – Fire and Ice – Vancouver 2010 Olympics | Credits: David Peckham/ Flickr

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur | Source: Wikipedia

From a linguistic perspective, we may note that he words “torch” [1] and “flame” are used metaphorically in several English and French expressions.

Both are used in sayings and maxims, usually those of an inspirational nature. Louis Pasteur, for example, said “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” [« La science ne connaît
aucun pays, parce que la connaissance appartient à l’humanité et est la torche
qui illumine le monde. »]

« Hearts are like tapers, which at beauteous eyes

Kindle a flame of love that never dies;

And beauty is a flame, where hearts, like moths,

Offer themselves a burning sacrifice. »

Omar Khayyām

In Act 1, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the infatuated Romeo, declaims in his soliloquy: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”

The word “torchbearer” in a literal sense refers to someone who carries a torch, such as the people involved in the relay from Olympia to London. But it is used more commonly in the metaphorical sense to refer to a person “in the forefront of a campaign, crusade or movement.” (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

“To carry a torch for someone” means to keep aflame the light of an unrequited love.  (See below the expression “old flame”, a similar concept).

A “torch song” is one sung (usually by a female) singer to express the emotions of carrying a torch for a past lover.

The expression “to pass the torch” means to hand over responsibility. President John Kennedy, in his inaugural speech, a classic example of oratory, proclaimed: “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”

President John Kennedy, Inaugural Speech,
January 27, 1961 Source:

The expression “to carry the torch” is a figurative way of saying “to lead or participate in a battle or crusade” (McGraw Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs).

The word flame in common usage needs no explanation, but the McGraw Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions defines the noun flame as a verbal attack as in sense 1. : My email is full of flames this morning! It also provides two definitions of “to flame”, when used as an intransitive verb: 

  • to write an excited and angry note in a computer forum or news group.
  • to appear obviously homosexual.

An “old flame” is somebody with whom one had a romantic relationship in the past, and for whom one still holds a soft spot.

In the following video clip, the iconic jazz singer, Sarah Vaughn, sings “My Old Flame.”

Flaming youth” is an expression coined by Shakespeare. Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet’ (where in the “closet scene, Hamlet regales his mother).

O shame, where is thy blush?
Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire.”

« like months to a flame »

The Cambridge Idioms Dictionary explains the expression “like moths to a flame”: if people gather around someone like moths to a flame, they try to be near someone who seems very attractive or very interesting.

The same dictionary defines “to fan the flames” as “to cause an increase in negative feelings”. It is often used to describe an activity which fans the flames of hatred or prejudice.

Flame of Liberty, Paris

Flame of liberty” is a metaphorical expression that signifies the quality of human liberty, which lights up the darkness and shows mankind the way to a better life. But “flame of liberty” is also associated with the Statue of Liberty, given by France to the United States in 1886 and located at the entrance to New York City. The flame was added 100 years later, in 1986. In Paris, too, there is a gold-leaf replica of the flame that emanates from the Statue of Liberty’s torch. The replica is situated at the Pont de l’Alma, in the 8th arrondissement.

Photo credit: Bob Krist © 2000 by Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation

Another artistic rendition of “The Flame of Liberty” is a 20-foot tall pillar of crimson glass tendrils, created by Dale Chuly for the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.

Returning to our point of departure, we wish all our readers who follow the Olympic Games a pleasant viewing. We hope that the excitement of the events will light the flame of your passion for the brotherhood of man, which the Games are intended to engender.

[1] Torch is also used in Britain to denote what is called a flashlight in America.

About the author of this article, en français:

Nous avons le plaisir d’accueillir Jonathan Goldberg, le co-auteur du Mot Juste En Anglais, un blog destiné à tous les locuteurs français qui s’intéressent à la langue anglaise. Retrouvez l’article en français sur son blogue au lien suivant: LIRE L’ARTICLE EN FRANÇAIS.


De langue maternelle anglaise, Jonathan a grandi en Afrique du Sud, son pays natal. Il a ensuite étudié à la Sorbonne, à Paris, avant de s’installer en Israël, où il a vécu pendant 40 ans. Il y a acquis une maitrise de l’hébreu lui conférant un niveau de langue maternelle.

En Israël, il a exercé la profession d’avocat, en hébreu et en anglais, en plus de son travail d’enseignement de l’anglais juridique à la faculté de droit d’Haïfa.

Depuis sa retraite à Los Angeles, il se consacre à son vieil amour pour les langues et travaille intensément dans le domaine de l’interprétation et de la traduction depuis près de 10 ans. Il a acquis une expérience conséquente principalement dans les domaines juridique et des affaires, parmi d’autres.

En tant qu’interprète hébreu-anglais et français-anglais membre du Conseil Judiciaire de Californie, il a interprété dans des centaines de procès et de dépositions à travers et au-delà de la Californie, ainsi que dans le domaine de la santé. Jonathan Goldberg appartient à plusieurs associations de traducteurs dont certaines sont citées ci-dessous.

  • Interprète agréé – Conseil Judiciaire de Californie
  • Interprète assermenté – Consulat-Général de la France à Los Angeles

Membre de:

• l’Association des traducteurs américains (ATA)

• l’Association Nationale des Interprètes et Traducteurs Judiciaires (NAJIT)

• l’Association des Traducteurs de Californie du Nord (NCTA)

Au nom de mes lecteurs et lectrices, tous mes remerciements pour cette intervention pertinente sur Le Mot du (Bon)jour, et au plaisir de vous retrouver bientôt en tant que contributeur, Jonathan !

2 Réponses to “The Olympic Torch – a linguistic perspective”

  1. Vanbrabant juillet 25, 2012 à 10:23 #

    Very interesting post!

    • guyilannoa juillet 25, 2012 à 15:37 #

      Thank you. Much appreciated. Would you like to tell readers about yourself? – the languages you speak and your linguistic activities.


Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Google. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

%d blogueurs aiment cette page :