When did The Ukraine become plain Ukraine? It’s been bugging me throughout what we now seem to be required to think of as the ‘Euros’, currently taking place in Poland and (The) Ukraine. I’ve watched quite a bit of it, and enjoyed it – it’s shorter and sweeter than the World Cup, with fewer predictable results (apart, I suppose, from England going out on penalties). And of course there’s been plenty of ‘punditry’ (i.e. blokes, almost exclusively, talking about football for quite a long time), but no one to the best of my knowledge has touched on the crucial question of why Ukraine appears to have lost the definite article which it definitely possessed when I was younger. Maybe Alan Shearer swapped a few carefully rehearsed ad libs with Gary Lineker on the subject, but I must have dozed off. And it’s hard to believe that Sky Sports News haven’t had a go, because in their highly amusing attempt to deliver blanket coverage of the competition Without Any Pictures of the Matches (no doubt to the delight of staff at BBC and ITV), they have left few other stones unturned.
I wondered whether it was just one of those things that happens for no particular reason, but then Professor Ron Hill from Trinity College Dublin delivered the inch-perfect geo-political ball. He tells us that Ukraine means ‘the frontier’, and that’s what the country was in the days of the Soviet regime, but now that it has its own identity and presumably wants to shed the baggage of the old USSR, the idea of being thought of as the back of beyond at the edge of a non-existent empire is less than attractive. I suppose they could have renamed themselves (‘Home of Amazing Electric Storms’? ‘Not all Racists as the Daily Mail Would Have you Believe’?), but they’ve stuck with it and removing the definite article seems like an attempt to divorce the word from its meaning. Good luck to them. As Alan would say, ‘I completely agree, Gary. And full credit to the Professor.’