There was a predictable outcry after Newcastle United announced that their St James’ Park ground is to be renamed the Sports Direct Arena. But putting aside football loyalty, why was this reaction inevitable from a linguistic point of view?
Names may not seem an obvious choice of subject for Wordability, interested as it is in new words and usages in the English Language. Proper names seem somehow outside the normal run of language, and when they are coined, it is not part of a language’s evolution. But proper nouns are fundamental to language and are words we use all the time, so when new names are used, our reaction to them is just as valid as it would be to any other kind of new word. Justification over.
I actually think about people’s names quite often. It is one of the most defining characteristics we have, and yet it is something over which we had no control. It was a decision taken about us by others, possibly before we had even been born, and people may form immediate opinions about us from our name before they have even met us. Don’t believe me? If I told you Tarquin and Persephone were coming round for dinner, you would prepare something different to what you would cook if I said that Wayne and Sharon were popping over.
Of course people do shorten their names, adopt nicknames, use middle names, add variety to the names they were given to help define their personality. But it is much harder to adapt when somebody makes an active change to their name and expects you to get used to it. I knew someone who used different names for different periods of their life, so depending on who you you spoke to about them, they used totally different names to discuss them. Other friends have decided to stop abbreviating their names, but I find it impossible to adjust. Andy, that’s you!
And this is equally true of celebrities. Former footballer Andy Cole suddenly announced he wanted to be known as Andrew Cole. Every time commentators mentioned him, I assumed they were referring to someone I had never heard of. Prince became a squiggle, and all people could do was call him the artist formerly known as Prince. Choosing an emblem has its problems, and had Prince really wanted to make a change, he should have chosen another name. Derek, perhaps.
Which brings us back to Newcastle. The reason that the change to the Sports Direct Arena is so hard for fans to take is that it is like having to use a new word, it is like being told that there has been a fundamental change in the English language, and from now on you have to refer to bread as bacon and to bacon as toast. It is impossible to do. That name is locked in your head as the right word to use for that stadium, and you can’t unlearn a word in your native tongue and replace it with something else.
It’s fine with new stadia. They are brand new concepts, if you like, so they need a new word to describe them. The fact that many of them are sponsored is irrelevant, and if they then go on to change their name again, so what, you hardly had time to get used to it in the first place. Leicester now play at the King Power Stadium. Before that, it was the Walker’s Stadium. Only fan power stopped it being called The Walker’s Bowl before that. Fans know something about what stadia should be called. Newcastle be warned.