Real and unreal

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According to Wikipedia, Real Madrid was voted the  "most successful [soccer] club of the 20th century" by FIFA, who ought to know.  The club's current full name is Real Madrid Club de Fútbol, but they weren't real (Spanish for "royal") until 1920, when King Alfonso XIII extended his royal patronage.  Before that, they were simply Madrid Club de Fútbol — and in 1931, when the Spanish monarchy was abolished, the name reverted to the un-real version. The club again became real in 1941, a couple of years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, when the monarchy was restored (although there wasn't an actual king on the throne until 1975).

The point here is that the real part of Real Madrid Club de Fútbol actually means something. It was added and taken away and added again, as a function of historical contingencies involving the Spanish monarchy.

But apparently this is one of those cases where a word's connotation (here "successful soccer team") has taken over from its denotation. In 2005, when a Major League Soccer franchise was established in Salt Lake City, Utah, the owners considered a long list of possible names: "Salt Lake City Highlanders", "Salt Lake Soccer Club",  "Alliance Soccer Club",  "Union SLC". But in the end, they settled on "Real Salt Lake".

As far as I know, King Juan Carlos — the only extant king of a Spanish-speaking country — was not consulted about this. The connotation seems to have worked out reasonably well anyhow, since Real Salt Lake won the MLS Cup in 2009 as champions of Major League Soccer, and is now in second place in the Western Conference of that league.

In fact, a number of the other teams in Spain's Liga de Fútbol Profesional are also real: Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Real Mallorca, etc. In the Spanish cases, I believe that this implies some minimal connection with the institution of the monarchy. But Real Salt Lake, as far as I can tell, is an example of the pure triumph of connotation.


  1. Paolo said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Pronunciation of Real?

    [(myl) In the case of Real Salt Lake, I've heard a range of variously-Anglicized versions of the Spanish pronunciation, as you'd expect — the same range that you'd get from Americans talking about Real Madrid, or about El Camino Real in CA.]

  2. Rob P. said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:35 am

    Salt Lake does have some (after the fact) connection as they have a deal with Real Madrid that includes games and some sort of youth development element.

    DC United is similar in that it is not a club formed from the ashes of other clubs as Manchester and Leeds are, but was United from the start, as an attempt to bring the traditional football fans out for American soccer.

  3. Trond Engen said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    Also United has spread. It's part of the name of many British football clubs. All or most of them are mergers of two or more older clubs. In recent years it has spread worldwide through identification with Manchester United. The American club is one of them, Finnish Tampere United of Finland is another.

    Here's a funny one: Belgium's K.V.S.K. United Overpelt-Lommel is both Real/ and United. According to Wikipedia K.V.S.K. stands for Koninklijke Voetbalvereniging en Sportkring.

  4. AJD said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    At least "DC United" makes a certain amount of sense as a name for a local DC team, the way "Washington Nationals" and "Washington Capitals" do.

  5. language hat said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    At least "DC United" makes a certain amount of sense as a name for a local DC team, the way "Washington Nationals" and "Washington Capitals" do.

    I don't see it. "United" adds no semantic value unless it means, as it traditionally did, a club formed by uniting a number of previous clubs. (Compare Washington's Union Station, so called because it was built jointly by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio.)

  6. Jesse Tseng said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    They should have gone with "Salt Lake City City".

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    I'm hoping "Real Salt Lake" shows a wry sense of humor.

    The public middle school's teams here in Española, New Mexico, are the Cardinals. Cardinals are not found within 100 miles of this town.

  8. Karen said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    I'd venture to guess that he was thinking of "United" as in "United States" – after all the Nationals are hardly a national team.

    In the States, we may talk about Washington or LA or Boston, but we also give them a moniker other than the city. I imagine most Americans don't think of Madrid or Barcelona as the team's name; "Real" must be that, like the Kansas City Royals, only with that weird singular soccer-team-name thing.

    Russian press often refers to Real Madrid as korolevskij klub, the royal club.

  9. rone said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    I wonder if any super-patriotic Americans have decried the implication of royalty, a most un-American notion, in the team's name.

  10. AMcguinn said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    On similar lines, Inter Cardiff (formerly "Inter Cabletel")

  11. GAC said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    I wonder if the result would have been different if Real Madrid were regularly translated in English-language media as "Royal Madrid".

    Also, @rone, forgive me if I am stereotyping, but I have a feeling many "super-patriotic Americans" don't speak Spanish.

    Ah, well, it is worth noting that real can also mean "real, true", although I think in that sense it is usually post-nominal, as in la vida real.

  12. Sili said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    I'll be happy to oblige, rone.

    I'm quite amused, though, since I certainly associate Utah with the "My country, right or wrong" people.

  13. Mark Mandel said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    I wouldn't call it triumph of *connotation*, but of the host language's homograph. We (English) imported the name "Real Madrid" with its spelling and reference. The proper noun "Madrid" is spelled the same in both languages, and "real" happens to be an English word, unrelated to Spanish "real", that can syntactically precede a noun; and the combination comes close enough to making sense in a team name to be credible, rather like an eggcorn. So anglophone sports fans parse the written name that way and pronounce it that way — why shouldn't they, if they don't know Spanish?

  14. Maria said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    I wonder if some Spanish speakers make the same mistake. After all, while "real" in the sense of "royal" is probably of widespread use in Spain, it may not be in Latin America.

  15. Mark Etherton said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    And of course there's the old joke about football results:

    Real Madrid, 1; Surreal Madrid, a fish.

  16. Matt Heath said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    Mark Mandel: Are you claiming anglophone sports fans say the "Real" in "Real Madrid" as if it were the English word. I'm pretty sure they don't, except maybe in countries were football isn't reported on TV.

    [(myl) Every perfomance of this team's name that I've ever heard is like this one:

    No doubt there are uninformed people who think that the name starts with the English word "real", but I'm sure that the team's owners and fans are not among them.]

    "Real Salt Lake" is a nice reversal of the older pattern of clubs around the world throwing bits of English in their names (Corinthians, Sporting Clube de Portugal, Racing de Santander…)

  17. AMcguinn said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    Matt: good point. in England, the pronunciation "Reel Madrid" I think would generally be considered an error by the knowledgeable, but you do hear it quite often.

  18. mgh said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    No complaints about the Kansas City Royals? (or the Sacramento Kings, for that matter?)

    [(myl) I keep forgetting that observations about facts of usage are generally interpreted as complaints.]

  19. mgh said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    myl, I meant to reply to rone's comments above regarding "super-patriotic Americans" decrying royal sports names. sorry for the confusion.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    Another Spanish club with Real in its original name is RCD Espanyol of Barcelona, founded as Real Club Deportivo Español. The name was changed to the Catalan Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol, except that deportiu is not really a Catalan word; it should be esportiu, but then the initials on the logo would have to be changed. Problems, problems!

  21. John Cowan said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    Should you happen for whatever reason to need to eat dinner in Staten Island instead of taking the half-hour free and scenic ferry ride to the neighboring isle of Manhattan, Real Madrid is a fine Spanish restaurant (that is, one serving the cuisine of Spain; in New York the collocation Spanish restaurant more usually refers to a place serving Dominican, Cuban, or even Argentinian food).

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    There are Incheon United and Jeju United as recent additions to Korea's K-League. The former was founded in 2003, and the latter used to be Bucheon SK before their controversial move to Jeju from Bucheon in 2006.

    The usual English renderings of non-English club names seems generally to respect original forms except when the name of the town has an English counterpart. Hence Spartak Moscow (not Moskva), Inter Milan (not Milano), FC Copenhagen (not København), Slavia Prague (not Praha) and the interesting case of Bayern Munich, where Bayern (Bavaria) is left alone but München is anglicized.

    There are exceptions, like AS Roma, Sevilla FC, and FC Köln (though I've also seen Seville FC and FC Cologne). Also, there's the curious case of AC Milan, who actually use the English form of the city's name even in Italian.

  23. Mark Mandel said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    Matt Heath & MYL: I stand corrected, then. I am not a soccer fan, and I shouldn't have made that assumption about speakers in the relevant community. Thanks.

    AMcguinn: Thanks. At least I'm not 100% off.

  24. Peter Taylor said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    I find this whole thread quite amusing because in Spain I hardly ever hear the word "Real" mentioned in connection with the team. I usually hear "El Madrí".

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    AMcguinn: in England, the pronunciation "Reel Madrid" I think would generally be considered an error by the knowledgeable, but you do hear it quite often.

    In British English, 'real' is traditionally pronounced /riəl/, although /riːl/ (= 'reel') seems to have taken over in recent decades. I wonder whether a lazy pronunciation of /reɪəl/ (one of the possible anglicizations of real, with the last vowel reduced to a schwa) might end up sounding just like the traditional pronunciation of 'real' in the usual sense to some people depending on the accent of the speaker.

  26. Mark P said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

    Also, there's the curious case of AC Milan, who actually use the English form of the city's name even in Italian.

    Less curious when you know it was founded by an Englishman.

    Originally a cricket club.

    Spartak Moscow (not Moskva),

    One might as well Anglicize an inflected language.

  27. madwoman said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 2:00 am

    I don't know how relevant it is to football, but English does use real to mean royal, as in real estate- which is not because the land is actual, but rather because the title ultimately vests in the Crown.

  28. John Moeller said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 3:00 am

    As a Salt Laker, I hear the ads for Real Salt Lake. It's pronounced "RAY-AHL" (as in an Anglicized approximation to the Spanish word) here; I've heard no one say "REEL."

  29. Pepe said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    Similar to the AC Milan case are the many football clubs called "Racing Club," mostly in Spanish-speaking countries.

  30. peter said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    And there's the use of "FC" (for "Football Club") or other English words in the names of football clubs in southern Africa, even when the remainder of the name is not in English and when the country was not a British colony, eg, Lesotho's "Lioli FC" or Mozambique's "Sporting Clube de Nampula".

  31. Vanya said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 9:01 am

    In the case of Real Salt Lake you are all missing the obvious – according to LDS doctrine "[Jesus Christ] is the central focus of our worship. He is the Lord who shall come again to reign on earth. He is our King, our Lord, our Master, the living Christ, who stands on the right hand of His Father."

    So you could justify the "Real" that way.

  32. pep said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    Coby: you´re right about Espanyol´s name.
    As for Real Sociedad: the basque club has changed name many times, too (suppresing the word Real).
    Even though the name has become fosilized and not many people cares about it, some attemps keep being made to suppress the "Real" part. A group in the Internet claims that izen euskalduna nahi dugu Donostia eta Gipuzkoa ordezkatzen duen futbol taldearentzat, which means that they want a Basque name for the team representing Donostia and Gipuzkoa.

  33. mollymooly said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    The impressive fastidiousness with which Madrid added and removed "Real" according to the country's constitutional status contrasts with Ireland, where many institutions remain "Royal" although the state became a republic in 1949.

    "English does use real to mean royal, as in real estate"

    There's also "real tennis" aka "royal tennis", but that's just coincidence: the "real" is a complaint at the usurpation of its name by the upstart "lawn tennis".

    I think English soccer commentators began to attempt native-approximating pronunciations of foreign club names after the UK joined the EEC in 1973. Ajax of Amsterdam was pronounced "A-Jacks" in their early 70s heyday; by their 90s Renaissance they were "eye-axe", or perhaps "ah-yaks".

    the interesting case of Bayern Munich, where Bayern (Bavaria) is left alone but München is anglicized.

    But in German the club is FC Bayern; the town is not mentioned. This pattern of adding the town to the name is rarer now than in the past, I guess from the same desire for greater authenticity as in the pronunciations.

  34. Dan T. said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    There was a Saturday morning TV show "The Real Ghostbusters", to distinguish it from an unrelated show that had the "Ghost Busters" name (I think it was two words).

  35. John Moeller said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 6:00 pm


    Sorry, I have to take issue with that. RSL isn't owned by the LDS Church. What's "obvious" to you is yet another joke in a long line of overdone non-humor. It's "obvious" to residents of Salt Lake too. So much so that most of us have moved on, religious or not.

  36. Trond Engen said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    But in German the club is FC Bayern; the town is not mentioned. This pattern of adding the town to the name is rarer now than in the past,

    The UEFA policy (as I understood it) was to add the town's name when the club's own name disn't convey its hometown or neighbourhood. When I finally learned that Arsenal FC (of London) was an exception to the rule, I saw that as just another special treatment of Britain.

    (Curiously, Norway's Rosenborg BK, carrying the name of its old neighbourhood and thus entering the European cups without an added toponym, has been dubbed Trondheim in German media.)

  37. John Swindle said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

    Years ago I asked a teacher about an odd word in a Chinese poem. He explained that place names sometimes keep archaic pronunciations. For example, there's a place in California called El Camino Real. Why doesn't it sound like "reel"? Probably hundreds of years ago the word was pronounced something like "rill".

    But, professor, I protested, El Camino Real is a Spanish name.

    Yes, yes, he said, so the place name is still pretty close to "rill", while the common noun changed its pronunciation. The same thing has happened in Chinese.

  38. Jesse Tseng said,

    June 6, 2010 @ 9:10 pm


    English does use real to mean royal, as in real estate- which is not because the land is actual, but rather because the title ultimately vests in the Crown.

    Sorry to challenge this, but I don't see any reliable support for this etymology. The OED says that "real" estate is immovable property (consisting of things), as opposed to "personal" estate. So it goes back to res~realis and not to rex~regalis.

    @Vanya: People talk about "Christ the King", but apart from Dan Brown, do people refer to Jesus as royalty?

  39. Panu said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    Trond already noted Tampere United, but there is a soccer team somewhere in Finland which adopted the word Borussia in their name in the mistaken belief that it means football club in German.

  40. Joaquim said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Let me add that the full official name of the Betis team (from Seville) is "Real Betis Balompié". The founders of the club clearly had a peeve against foreign words like "fútbol"…

  41. Tom Vinson said,

    June 7, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    "München" is (or was years ago) sometimes added to Bayern to more clearly distinguish it from another club, Bayer Leverkusen (not the same name, but close if you're listening to results on the radio).

  42. George said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 8:22 am

    In France they refer to Bayern de Munich, so they get the city in but not explicitly as part of the club's name.

  43. PaulB said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    I pronounce "real" as /riəl/, consistent with Jongseong Park's remarks. I use the same pronunciation in "Real Madrid". This is what I would expect to hear in British broadcast commentary. The alternative for me would be /reˈal maˈðɾið/.

    Incidentally, Центральный спортивный клуб Армии Москва is rendered in English "CSKA Moscow", in a melange of translation and transliteration.

  44. bart johnson said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    Salt Lake has had several inappropriately named sports teams; most obviously, the Jazz and the Buzz, two things not normally associated with Mormon HQ.

  45. Christopher John Brennan said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    DC United is a nearly perfect name. "DC" echoes the latin AC/FC names of many famous teams (e.g. FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich and AC Milan) while being one of the city's names. As the capital of the "United" States, the "United" nickname pays homage to the English "United" naming tradition (e.g. not only Manchester United, but also Newcastle United and West Ham United) while using a name that really fits the city.

    Columbus wins the award for best initial conception but worst actual execution of an MLS team name with the "Columbus Crew". "Columbus" is named after Christopher Columbus of course and his sailors were his "Crew". Easy. All they needed was logo with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria sailing over the horizon of a soccer ball (with the year 1492 in the crest too). Instead, however, the team's logo is of a construction "crew" and the colors are the yellow and black of construction equipment.

    And, at the very least, Real Salt Lake should have been Royal Salt Lake. There's nothing wrong with Spanish or English, but the particular mix (especially given the lack of any connection to the city) just grates on the ear.

  46. Lior said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    The Jazz started as the New Orleans Jazz before moving to Utah. The name "Rochester Royals" was alliterative, as were several other team names of the time. Later the Royals moved to Cincinnati, and then to Kansas City. In Kansas City the alliteration was restored by renaming the team the Kansas City Kings, but that wasn't the end of the Westward drive — at the moment the team plays in Sacramento.

  47. Dan said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    @bart Johnson:
    Half right – As Utah's nickname is the Beehive state, "The Buzz" would be appropriate.

    Of course, the Jazz franchise was founded in New Orleans, and there was no name change, as the Choristers wouldn't look nearly as good on a jersey.

    A Spanish exchange student I studied went found the name "Camino Real" applied to fine dining resturants humorous, as one of the senses of the term in Spanish is "Public Highway".

  48. Mark Byron said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 5:52 pm

    The Buzz would be Mormon-linked. The state flag has a bee-hive on it; it's a symbol for God's Kingdom in Mormon iconography.

    In these case of DC United, I think it is more of a play on Manchester United, just as Real Salt Lake nods to Real Madrid. Both make things sound European and soccery.

  49. Joshua said,

    June 8, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

    John Moeller: @Vanya:

    Sorry, I have to take issue with that. RSL isn't owned by the LDS Church.

    So what? RSL's local fan base is still overwhelmingly Mormon, so to the degree that they make the connection between "Real"/"royal" and Jesus, the name would still resonate with them and Vanya's point is still quite valid.

  50. John Moeller said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    So what? RSL's local fan base is still overwhelmingly Mormon,

    What number is overwhelming exactly? Do you have a percentage you can quote?

    so to the degree that they make the connection between "Real"/"royal" and Jesus, the name would still resonate with them and Vanya's point is still quite valid.

    Only if you pluck a scripture passage out of context. I don't personally know any Mormons for whom monarchy resonates on a personal or religious level. "King" usually implies reverence, not monarchy, with most religious conservatives in the USA.

    However, many of the Mormons that I do know have been on Spanish-speaking missions. They surely know what the word "Real" implies in the context of RSL, and likely the connection to the established Spanish club is what resonates (as intended); moreover, the fact that RSL has been quite successful would resonate.

  51. Dan said,

    June 9, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    I think part of the issue is that European teams in general are known by their club names, while American teams have official nicknames. So DC United and Real Salt Lake are trying to capture the spirit of the European tradition, while imposing the names in the American fashion.

    Thus a European fan would know that a match between the Gunners and Red Devils would show up in the standings as Arsenal – Manchester United.

  52. Play Soccer Like It’s 1799 | said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    […] Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) discusses the name of the soccer team Real Salt Lake, which plays in a place that el Rey de España hasn’t claimed sovereignty over in nearly 200 years. […]

  53. Elena said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    Well, not exactly the founders. Rather, Franco did. It was during his government that foreign and anglicized words were "translated" back into Spanish to encourage autarchy. This would lead to archaic words and constructs like balompié (balón = ball, pie = foot) or balón volea (volea = volley). Baloncesto is still used a lot more than basketball, though.

  54. Joshua said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    I don't see where "United" traditionally meant "a club formed by uniting a number of previous clubs."

    Polytechnic F.C. claims that when it "was formed in 1875 and initially known as Hanover United … [i]t was the first club in the world to have the name ‘United’ in its title, paving the way for others such as Manchester United." There's no mention of a merger involved there.

    Manchester United F.C. was known as Newton Heath F.C. before it changed its name in 1902 to the present name. Neither the club's official web site nor Wikipedia mention anything about a merger with other clubs occurring at that time.

    Admittedly, some "United" clubs, like Newcastle United in 1892, were formed by the merger of previous clubs. But if the first "United" club wasn't so named for a merger, and the most famous "United" club wasn't so named for a merger, both over 100 years ago, I think it's safe to say that a football club never needed to be formed from a merger to justify the use of the word "United" in their name.

  55. Ken said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Utah is also the home of the "Utah Jazz". Utah has always been known for it's Spanish monarchist and as a the birthplace of jazz.

  56. Joshua said,

    June 11, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    I remember back in the 1980s reading a column in which someone suggested that the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers should trade nicknames, because Utah has a large lake and L.A. has many jazz musicians. (There are some lakes in the Los Angeles area, but I don't think any of them are famous.) Unfortunately, this didn't turn out to be a proposal which was taken seriously.

  57. Javi said,

    June 13, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

    Real Betis Balompié is the most famous soccer team in the south of Spain.

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