There’s an old joke among journalists—OK, mostly among copy editors—about a passage that says that the speaker “stood behind the podium.” “Stupid guy,” people would snicker. “How can people see him when he’s standing behind the platform he’s supposed to stand on?” They would then swiftly change “podium” to “lectern” and move on, secure in the knowledge that another misleading image had been salvaged.
But most readers wouldn’t have been misled even if “podium” had been left unchanged.
Originally, a “podium” meant a raised platform around a Roman arena, reserved for the emperor and other dignitaries. At the recent Olympics, the athletes got their medals on the “podium,” upon which they stood. (The “pod” in “podium” is the same “pod” in “podiatrist,” coming from “foot.”) Later, it became a raised platform upon which someone would stand while delivering a lecture, or conducting an orchestra, or leading a choir.
But that person needed a place to put his lecture notes or music. So around 1325, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came the “lectern.” (Lecture/lectern–get it?) The speaker would step onto the “podium,” put his notes on the “lectern,” and life was fine for a while.
Then, as so often happens, North Americans started spoiling it all. Starting in 1954, according to the OED, people started using “podium” when they really meant “lectern.” And, as so often happens, usage authorities and dictionaries shook their fingers and called it a no-no. The second edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, for example, did not deign to endorse the use of “podium “for “lectern.”
But North Americans were not to be denied, and the thing that held the notes was being called the “podium” more than “lectern,” though studious copy editors everywhere prevented it from showing up in print a lot. By the third edition of WNW, in 1988, there it is, under “podium,” as the fifth definition: “lectern.”
Most other usage authorities have given in, though the Associated Press and New York Times style books insist on maintaining the distinction—“A speaker stands behind a lectern, on a podium or rostrum, or in the pulpit,” AP says. Garner lists it only at Stage 4 of the Language-Change Index (Ubiquitous, but …), and suggests that careful writers should avoid using “podium” when “lectern” is meant. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests using “lectern” “especially if you fear your writing may otherwise become the object of someone’s merriment.”
Here’s a passage that nicely parses the difference, from a blog posting about filibusters: “Once upon a time, boys and girls, the Senate filibuster was not the bloodless procedural agreement we have today. No, sir (or madam). Minority senators who wanted to hold the podium had to grip that lectern and keep on actually talking.”
End of lecture.