For young athletes it’s the cross-country season. Our daughter started competing at athletics meetings late last year, so we are approaching the first anniversary of her first race. That was on a cold, wet Saturday last December and in a couple of weeks’ time, all being well, she will compete in that same event for the second year running (pun intended). She ran that first race in trainers. One of the coaches from her athletics club seemed rather surprised. He asked, “Haven’t you got your spikes?”, referring to running shoes with spikes in the soles that are worn by most competitors. We had no idea that such things were required back then but bought a pair immediately after the race. The stalls selling running gear offer a decent discount compared to most regular sports shops.
Children’s feet can grow so quickly. She is onto her third pair of spikes, as we now call them too, the shoes themselves, not just the “metal points set into the sole of a running shoe to prevent slipping”, as this Oxford Dictionary definition puts it. This makes the word a synecdoche, which was the subject of this earlier Word of the Week piece. We can now say “Nice spikes” to refer to her footwear in the same way that we might say “Nice wheels” to refer to someone’s car.
When it comes to the “sharp metal points” themselves we have learnt that there are at least three sizes: 6mm (for track racing), 9mm (the usual size for cross-country) and 12mm (recommended for the race she undertook on a hilly course in North London over the weekend). You loosen and tighten them with a key. We are building up quite a collection of keys and different-sized spikes.
The Oxford Dictionary definition tells us that the origin of “spike” is “Middle English: perhaps from Middle Low German, Middle Dutch spiker, related to spoke. The verb dates from the early 17th century.” “Spike” as a verb has many different meanings, including “Add alcohol or a drug to contaminate (drink or food) surreptitiously” and “(of a newspaper editor) reject (a story) by or as if by filing it on a spike”. In old-fashioned newspaper offices editors would keep spikes (“pointed metal rod(s) standing on a base”) on their desks to “file” rejected items.
Returning to the world of sport, spike can also mean, in volleyball, “hit (the ball) forcefully from a position near the net so that it moves downward into the opposite court” and, in American Football, “Fling (the ball) forcefully to the ground, typically in celebration of a touchdown or victory”. Our daughter is unlikely to use the word spike in either of these contexts any time soon, and I hope that is true of a third sport-related meaning, from baseball: “Injure (a player) with the spikes on one’s shoes”. Those 12mm spikes could really do some damage.