Across the colourful arc of their history, Bristol Rovers have gone by all manner of names. In its time the club has been variously known as Black Arabs F.C., Eastville Rovers and Bristol Eastville Rovers. And those are just the official titles. They also have more than one unofficial handle, with “The Pirates” vying for position with one of football’s best and most unusual nicknames: “The Gas”.
The story goes that rivals Bristol City used the term as a slur on Rovers’ ground Eastville Stadium, which was perched next to a local gasworks. The Rovers old guard resisted the title for over thirty years, preferring the club-approved piratical moniker.
But in that time-honoured way that it will, push came to shove. Enough was enough, so to silence the haters Rovers fans took matters into their own hands and began using the nickname themselves. In doing so, they took ownership of the tone of the words and gave them a positive slant. This is, as novelist Marina Warner puts it, ”a form of well-proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.” It’s known as reappropriation.
In good company
Gasheads are in good company. In the armoury of the stigmatised, reappropriation is a powerful weapon, and it has been deployed in the fields of race, gender, religion, sexuality and politics. One such example is in the LGBT community, where the word “queer” was once exclusively derogatory. The community began using it themselves, and over time it has become an increasingly accepted term.
Reappropriation highlights the power that labels have to create social identity, which is important in football given how often fans look to their club to define who they are as individuals. It also shows that stigma and slurs are malleable, and can be renegotiated.
A risky move
But reappropriation is also a risky move, and one that takes guts. There’s pain in being a member of any stigmatised group, and it’s unpleasant to give voice to words used against you. You risk giving the words temporary validation and potentially handing power to your oppressors. Then there is the fact that, if not adopted by all members, it can cause factions within a group.
But British football has plenty of examples of how reappropriation has worked, and worked well. Tottenham fans have taken on the racist epithet “Yids”, while Ipswich and Hartlepool are happily known as “Tractor Boys” and “Monkey Hangers” respectively. You only need to hear Cardiff City fans sing “one-nil to the sheep-shaggers” – and see the reaction from opposition crowds – to understand how reappropriation can disarm a slur.
Not just a British phenomenon
As well as needing an ounce of chutzpah, reappropriation in football carries with it a certain wit and self-deprecation. Given how much we value these traits, it’d be tempting to imagine that it is a practice unique to UK football.
But this is far from just an English-language phenomenon. The Dutch know a reappropriated term as a geuzennaam, a word which itself has its roots in a reappropriated word for beggars – geuzen – which was used to deride Dutch opponents to Spanish rule in the 16th century.
Similarly to Spurs, Ajax fans have taken on the geuzennaam Joden (“Jews”) and made it their own, while PSV fans are proud to call themselves boeren (“farmers”). As with much in football, though, when it comes to doing things properly we look to South America.
Pig-hooligans and manure
Sportivo Luqueño in Paraguay are nicknamed Kuré Luque (Kure meaning “pig” in Guaraní). The town of Luque was famous for rearing swine, and people used to transport pigs on trains, even on match days. For a time the players used the same trains as the pigs, which, to be fair to rival fans, really couldn’t be left uncommented on. Luqueños now fully own this insult, though: they have a pig as their mascot, their ground is referred to as the Chiquero (“Pig Sty”) and their barra call themselves the Chancholigans (“The Pig-hooligans”).
Over in Argentina, Boca Juniors go by the nickname bosteros, which refers to the horse manure (bosta) used in the factories where La Bombonera now stands. Despite originating as an insult, it has become a badge of honour.
Not to be outdone, Flamengo in Brazil was often referred to as the club of the urubu (black vultures). This was doubly-pointed, playing on both the racial background and poverty of their fanbase. This all changed in the 1960s when, following a miserable run against rivals Botafogo, a fan caught an actual vulture and threw it onto the pitch before a game. This made the crowd suitably rambunctious, and prompted Flamengo to win the match. Following that the vulture has become the club’s official mascot, taking over from the previous incumbent: Popeye.
The future of reappropriation
The future of reappropriation is an interesting one. As society moves towards multiculturalism, we could see more reappropriation as stigmatised groups become increasingly comfortable with wearing previously negative labels with pride.
However, as larger teams attract increasingly worldwide support, they face a much-documented battle to retain their core identity. Nicknames – and the history, tradition and local flavour attached to them – form a big part of this identity. As clubs shift focus from the local to the global, it will be an interesting sideshow to see what role nicknames and reappropriation have to play.
So if the newly-flush Bristol Rovers could parlay their wealth into global success, would international fans take to the idea of “The Gas”?