Podium vs. Lectern

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Podium vs. Lectern”

  1. A speaker told a story: He was working with event planners for a keynote address at some conference, and he asked for a “clear podium” because he likes to move about. Potted plants and things get in the way. At the time of the event, someone told him how hard they worked to find a “clear podium.” Turns out they came up with a transparent acrylic LECTERN. Hearing that story cemented the difference in my mind.

  2. I think we can blame the American public education system (K-12) for the confusion since most of the school facilities are built to similar standards. A speaker typically steps onto the stage or podium of an auditorium to address an assembly. Sometimes there is a lectern and sometimes not. Some classrooms have lecterns, and some do not, but the assembly hall always has a podium, while the arena for higher education would be is a snake pit or amphitheater.

  3. I have to admit, this is a new one to me. I have heard the word lectern used a couple of times in my life. But I and everyone I know (and that’s in a public speaking course) refer to it as the podium, and what you define as the podium is referred to as the stage. In retrospect, the “pod” in podium should have been a clue. But I would say that this new usage is so firmly established, at least here in Canada, that there’s zero chance of ever correcting it.

  4. I taught an Effective Speaking class for a number of years. One of the first things I told my students was the difference between a lectern and podium. It must have worked, because none of them confused the two in their presentations.
    Your thoughts re “stress” and “emphasize” would be appreciated.

  5. As always, the predicament is aided by Merriam Webster. Two of its definitions helpfully offer:

    1) a stand with a slanted surface that holds a book, notes, etc., for someone who is reading, speaking, or teaching
    2) a lectern.

    I have never equated a podium with a stage, as some seem to suggest, but as a platform on a stage, maybe. It seems like the difference between a lectern and a dais would cause more confusion, but probably too few are aware of the term dais to get it wrong. If podium were mentally related to pod– foot– it would really go a long way to end this, but that is probably too much to ask. It’s obviously too much for Merriam Webster.
    Merriam Webster:
    noun [mer-i-am web·ster \ˈmer-ee-əm web-stər\]
    definition of MERRIAM WEBSTER
    “A book that superficially resembles a dictionary”

  6. I know the difference between these 2 words and hope I don’t confuse them in speech, although I can’t remember the last time either word came out of my mouth. I also know what a dais is (and how to pronounce it LOL), because that is what we call the raised area in front of the congregation in a synagogue. In Hebrew, it is called the bima/bimah, and that’s where the action is. In the synagogue I attend, there is a lectern on one side of the dais, behind which whoever is speaking can stand, and a small podium (on the floor behind the lectern), for speakers to stand ON, which is great if they are short (like me!)

  7. Thank you ever so much for sharing this distinction. This mistake is one that I find particularly annoying!

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