When Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown declined to participate in a debate this week with his Democratic rivals for the governorship Attorney General Douglas Gansler and Delegate Heather Mizeur, his name was placed on a vacant lectern flanked by lecterns for the two participants.
But WBFF, the Fox affiliate the broadcast the debate, did not call the furniture lecterns, and neither has anyone else. Everyone refers to the vacant podium.
Podium started out as a raised platform or dais, and its meaning was implicit in its etymology, from the Greek podion, a diminutive of the word for "foot." A podium was not something you stood behind; it was something you put both feet on.
But etymology, however suggestive, is not destiny. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary gives both "raised platform" and "a stand with a slanted surface that holds a book, notes, etc., for someone who is reading, speaking, or teaching." So does American Heritage, without even a note from its vaunted usage panel.
Bryan Garner tries to hold the line in Garner's Modern American Usage, saying that careful writers will avoid using podium for lectern, but he acknowledges that the sense, "once widely condemned as a misuse, has become commonplace."
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, noting that the podium/lectern distinction has been "a favorite bugbear of the journalistic commentators," points out that "the average reader has not been put off or misled one bit."
The distinction, MWDEU concludes, is "not really a usage problem at all--no one is confused or misled--but a usage writer's in-joke."
Traveling by air as much as he does, Bryan Garner will surely pick up how much this once-scorned usage has become standard. Every time a voice over the loudspeaker asks a passenger to "come to the podium," the usage is reinforced for hundreds of English speakers.*
So this week, in the reportage and commentary on the farcical gubernatorial debate, I have merely waved podium through. If it ever was important, for which there is some doubt, it is now plainly a game-not-worth-the-candle distinction.
*Mind you, it's neither a podium nor a lectern, but a damn counter. So in addition to furnishing transport only marginally more comfortable than in a slaver on the Middle Passage, the airlines are muddying the language.