When winningest Olympic isn’t the best

Media claims that Michael Phelps is the winningest olympic athlete ever sound like appalling English; but thousands of journalists are using the word according to a Google News search.

There are plenty of alternatives, such as stating Phelps is the most successful olympic athelete of all time or that he has won more olympic gold medals than any other athlete in history.

Winningest may well be a real word (or at least in the US), as in “winning most often” but is a very ugly expression. 

There are times when using a single word is the most appropriate way to communicate something, but if the words chosen are distracting they affect the ability of the receiver to concentrate on the message.

Here, I found myself wondering whether or not winningest is a real word, as did the BBC commentators after showing clips of how Phelps’ record-breaking was reported “back home”.  As such, it took the focus away from the achievement – and good language should never get in the way of what is being communicated.


  1. Winningest is a perfectly crumulent word! Ach! inreality it jars like claws on a blackboard.

    As for Phelps being the greatest Olympian? Comparing him to, say, Steve Redgrave or Al Oerter is like comparing apples and oranges. People never seem to remember Aldar Gerevich who won Team sabre golds for Hungary in LA, Berlin, London, Helsinki, Melbourne and Rome. Now he may notbe the winningest but he how many can still be Olympic champion after 28 years!

  2. Jill Blake says:

    I had a good one today about verb confusion that this post reminded me of. Shoulder instability occurs when…- very confusion – turned into instability of the shoulder occurs when…

    I ended up with more words but certainly not redundant ones I don’t think.

  3. Jams – I agree that there are many measures for determining the greatest Olympian. As you say, longevity at the top is an alternative to the record golds in one or two Games. Phelps is also fortunate that there are so many events around his skills set that he can enter. Other competitors have a much more restricted opportunity. Then there’s the issue of whether historical success is much more of an achievement given the progress in equipment, training, diet, monetary and psychological support etc today.

    Jill – you are right that often aiming for the fewest number of words affects clarity.

  4. Ted says:

    OK, I get it, you aren’t used to the word, but can’t you just chalk it up to colloquial differences? I think it’s a bit naive to simply rip it.

    I had a colleague in New Zealand ask about the word. I pulled up google and low and behold winningest was on reference.com and m-w.com, two of the most widely used references in the US. She simply stated that it wasn’t a word she was overly familiar with.

    At times, I hear words in New Zealand that aren’t familiar such as gurn, pash, daft, and bullocks. I don’t dispute weather they are actually words nor do I argue that clarity could be improved if they used more words in stead of being concise.
    The New York Times, despite being the most read newspaper in world, is written for an American audience.

  5. Ted – when you aren’t familiar with a word and it seems awkward – and in the case of “winningest”, even made up – it is reasonable to say it was distracting. I looked it up and found it is a word (albeit largely US-specific). The BBC correspondents here simply mocked its use, so they clearly found it distracting too.

    If I heard New Zealand (or colloquial English) terms that were unfamiliar to me, my reaction would be similar in respect of researching them. However, the point remains that if your audience is unfamiliar with a word then it can be distracting – as winningest is outside the US.

    I still believe it isn’t the best word to select as there are much better alternatives that aren’t colloquial (which is normally the standard we expect from the media).

    It is grammatically awkward – is winninger also a word, as one would expect under the standard rules of superlatives? Although, equally torturous is “losingest” which seems also to be a word in the US.

  6. Tom Paine says:

    The English language is one and what is a word in one place is a word in another. I luxuriate in the size of our language (twice as many words as the next largest) and in all the choices that gives. What is the point of being snooty about a word some English-speakers like, when you can simply take a different arrow from your quiver? It’s not the losingest thing I have ever read, but it’s not the winningest either. B^)

    I read somewhere (but I can’t find the source for you now) that Australian English produces more neologisms than any other tributary of our linguistic river. I wonder why?

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