Stadia versus stadiums

FIFA corruption

I have just updated this post from 2011. In June 2011  FIFA executives were denying corruption charges; the awarding of the 2022 FIFA Soccer World Cup to Qatar (which Australia had tried to bid for) was being questioned; and Sepp Blatter, the man in charge, was re-elected unopposed as FIFA president. 

I was concerned that all this obscured another corruption, a corruption of our language. The crime is an example of what Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, refers to as didacticism, or sometimes, as pride of knowledge. It occurred during the unsuccessful Australian bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The bid spokespeople and the press all used stadia as the plural of stadium.

In an earlier post I referred to my abhorrence of the use of fora as the plural of forum. Although most dictionaries list the plural of stadium as stadiums or stadia it is time to eliminate the pompous use of stadia. There are good reasons to do so.

Origins of stadium

In classical Latin a stadium is a length. It is derived from the ancient Greek, stadion (anglicised as stade), a length of 600 feet, or approximately 180 metres. It did not come directly into English because early English used a similar measure, furlongs. Furlongs was used to translate Biblical references to stadia, but they are otherwise unconnected. Furlong derives from the Old English words furh (furrow) and lang (long) and originally referred to the length of a ploughed furrow in medieval strip farming (an eighth of a mile or 201 metres).

The stadion was the length of a running track in Greece. The length of the stadion was 176 metres. The first Olympic Games consisted of only one race run over the stadion at Olympia. Spectators were seated on tiered seats around the track, and hence the structure for watching a running race became known as a stadion or stadium.

Stadium, when first imported into English in about 1600, meant a running track. Its meaning was broadened in the early 19th century into its modern usage meaning large oval structures with tiers of seats for viewing a sporting event.

Amphitheatres, arenas and circuses

What we in modern English refer to as stadiums were not referred to as stadiums (or indeed, stadia) by the Romans. The main sporting events that the Romans attended were battle recreations, gladiatorial combats, and chariot and horse races. The venues they built for these events were not called stadiums but were variously amphitheatres, arenas or circuses (venue is from Latin venire meaning to come).

The most famous Roman sporting venue was the Flavian Amphitheatre, more commonly known as the Colosseum, in Rome. It staged many events involving gladiators, wild animals, hunts, and battles. Amphitheatre derives from the structure being imagined as two theatres built facing each other, from the Greek amphi-, on both sides and théātron, for theatre (meaning place for viewing).

Arena, from the Latin, harena, is a place of combat and is thought to have come from Etruscan for sand or sandy place. The central stages of arenas were filled with sand to soak up the blood from the sports played there. (Paris has the Arènes de Lutèce, the Roman arena that now hosts schoolboys playing soccer and old men playing pétanque but once hosted gladiators).

The Latin circus, simply meant ring, from Greek, kirkos for circle. The Romans used circus for circular arenas for performances and contests and also for the oval courses for horse racing (especially the Circus Maximus in Rome).

False didacticism

So what does all this mean? It means that the word stadium was used by the Romans and Greeks to describe a place to watch a footrace, the plural being stadia. The places the Romans watched big sporting events were amphitheatres, arenas or circuses. Stadium, therefore, is a word that has was adopted into English only recently to describe large sporting venues and should be treated as an English word with plural, stadiums.

The Romans would not have called a venue for a football game a stadium, it would have been an arena, an ampitheatre and perhaps even a circus but not a stadium. So using stadia to describe a collection of soccer venues cannot be historically nor grammatically justified. Time to stop!