A misused word that brings out the Tolkien in me

Gollum mashup
If Gollum were a teacher, he’d use a podium as a lectern. Whether he’d face the opposite direction of the class, I can only speculate. (Images via a “Lord of the Rings” poster and stock.xchng.)

If you see a big guy with wild eyes and wild hair running down a street near you screaming, “It’s a lectern, not a podium! It’s a lectern, not a podium!,” please don’t call the police.

That will be me spewing out all the “podiums” I’ve been forced to swallow over the last few weeks.

At my university, where I’ve been working with others to rethink classrooms, the folks from I.T. talk about “the podium” at the front of the room. The architecture folks talk about “the podium.” The administrative staff talks about “the podium.”

At recent conferences where I’ve spoken, I’ve been directed to “the podium” more than once, even though the rooms had only lecterns, not podiums.

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent an email message asking faculty members to take a poll about whether to keep “the podium” in a particular classroom. I browsed to the online poll, hoping to find a space where I could write, “That room has no podium.” Unfortunately, the poll offered only a yes or no answer. I didn’t answer.

This week, as I was leaving a classroom, a colleague who speaks ever-so-precise British English asked someone about the placement of “the podium” in the room. I wanted to turn around and ask whether Oxford hadn’t invented dictionaries when he learned the Queen’s English, but I refrained.

I’ve railed about this before. Those who take my editing classes tend to remember the first time I remove a small wooden lectern from a table top, hold it into the air and demand, “What is this?”

Amid unsure looks and half-hearted answers of “a podium,” I thunder, “It’s a lectern! A lectern! You stand on a podium. You put your notes on a lectern.”

So I’m relatively certain that a handful of people still know the difference between a lectern and a podium. But only a few.

I salve my chafed ears with the balm of humor, imagining my colleagues walking into their classrooms, ascending the steps of a podium, placing their notes at their feet and squatting like Gollum, the goblin-like character from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as they lead their classes.

I keep thinking I should give up the fight on “podium” vs. “lectern.” It’s a hopeless cause. I know that. I can’t bring myself to do it, though. If a lectern has become a podium, I ask myself, what has a podium become?

Perhaps I’ll start calling it a Gollum.

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