A reader laments the confusion between these two words:
Here in the United States anyway, people are constantly using the word “podium” (what you stand on) to refer to the “lectern” (what you stand behind). The reverse, not so much. Confusing these two words erodes the richness of the language. We’re on the verge of having two words for “lectern” and none for “podium.”
The confusion must be widespread: the OED already notes the use of podium to denote a lectern as “North American extended use.”
I’d call it “extended misuse.” And it’s not just the North Americans who confuse the words. I discovered this example in a British newspaper:
Just days after Sarah Palin revealed she was “seriously interested” in running for president in 2016, she stood behind the podium at the Iowa Freedom Summit and delivered a bizarre and rambling speech to the audience.—The Independent
The Associated Press Stylebook—an American publication—recognizes the difference:
lectern, podium, pulpit, rostrum: A speaker stands behind a lectern, on a podium or rostrum, or in the pulpit.
The word podium derives from the Latin word for foot. One stands on a podium for improved visibility. For example, a band director stands on a podium to conduct.
The word lectern derives from the Latin verb legere, “to read.” Readers or speakers stand behind a lectern and rest their notes on its sloping surface.
In looking for misuses of the words podium and lectern, I used variations of prepositional phrases beginning with behind and on.
Note: It is possible to stand behind a podium. For example, athletes stand behind the podium until it is their turn to mount the podium and receive their awards. Standing on a lectern, on the other hand, would be a risky thing to do. Speakers usually stand at or behind a lectern.
The following examples illustrate nonstandard uses of lectern and podium:
Incorrect: Minutes later, he entered Room 5, stepped onto the lectern for the final time, and tried to summarize how it felt to be leaving a job and a school he felt “blessed” to have worked for.
Correct: stepped behind the lectern
Incorrect: Dr. Bryan used no electronic slides or projection system but simply stood behind the podium and delivered what was for me the most thought provoking lecture of the week.
Correct: stood behind the lectern or stood on the podium
Incorrect: The lecturer stood high up behind a tall podium, so you could just see the top of his head.
Correct: stood high up behind a tall lectern
Incorrect: These people were obviously in full view of Romney as he stood at the podium and spoke for more than an hour.
Correct: as he stood on the podium
Dictionaries notwithstanding, careful speakers will continue to observe the useful distinction between lectern and podium.