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‘Bouldering’: From a roaring stone to an Olympic sport

The linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read the previous columns here.

One of the new Olympic Sport climbing, which will be competing on August 3, celebrates its premiere in Tokyo. It consists of three disciplines that the athletes must all master in a combined format. When leading, the participants climb a wall as high as possible within six minutes, secured by safety ropes. And in speed climbing, two climbers compete at the same time to climb an almost 15 meter high wall faster than their opponent, again with safety ropes.

The third discipline that puts climbers to the test is called “bouldering”. In this case, climbers have to tackle as many fixed routes as possible on a 4.5 meter high wall with different challenges within four minutes. And all without the help of ropes or belts, because climbers navigate the wall by quickly determining where to place their hands and feet.

“Bouldering” may seem like an unusual term for a sporting endeavor on an artificial rock wall without real boulders in sight. But it grows out of a climbing tradition in which naturally occurring rock formations present the climber with different sequences of movements, which are referred to as “problems” in sport.

For several centuries, a “boulder” could be a round stone of any size, larger than a pebble.

“Boulder” itself is a word that probably comes from a Scandinavian source related to the Swedish term “bullersten”. A “bullersten” is a large stone found in a stream and can be translated either as “round stone” or “roaring stone” – the “roar” refers to noisy water rushing past.

In Middle English the word appeared as “bulder-stone” and was eventually modernized as “boulder-stone”. At the beginning of the 17th century “Boulder-Stein” was abbreviated to “Boulder”, as advised in a riding guide from 1607 that the winter shelter for foals “should be paved with pebbles, boulders or some other type of small stone”. In its early usage, “boulder” often referred to stones that were used to pave or build in cobblestone.

For several centuries, a “boulder” could be a round stone of any size, larger than a pebble. But 19th century geologists gave it a more specific meaning for a very large mass of rock lying on the surface of the earth. Boulders are usually worn away by weather and erosion, and can appear a long way from the original bedrock that formed them. Often their location reflects a geological history back to an ice age, with rocks that were carried away by glaciers and deposited where the ice sheets melted.

In the late 19th century, European mountaineers began climbing particularly challenging boulders to practice their skills before venturing to the Alpine peaks. The activity deserved a new word and changed “boulder” into the verbal noun “bouldering”. An 1896 issue of the Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal described “bouldering” as “the fascinating modern pleasure”. And in his book “British Mountaineering”, published in 1909, Claude E. Benson wrote about “this ultra-gymnastic bouldering that is becoming more and more fashionable”.

In the 1930s, bouldering was recognized as a competitive discipline in its own right, with the boulders of the French region of Fontainebleau, or “Bleau” for short, becoming a first-class place for climbing. (Fontainebleau boulderers are known as “Bleausards” in French.) Later, in the 1950s, an American climber named John Gill made a series of innovations that made bouldering a meticulous mental and physical exercise similar to a gymnastics competition.

With the development of sport, bouldering has evolved from natural bouldering to artificial climbing walls both indoors and outdoors. Some adventurous souls have even developed a style of urban climbing on the sides of tall buildings with no safety ropes. This daring activity, which combines “building” and “bouldering”, is known as “building”. The Olympic climbers won’t climb skyscrapers, but their bouldering tricks won’t be any less brave.

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