A fine word. Most of us know it as a noun, referring to a run of 26 miles, or 42.195 kilometres. It can also be an adverb of course, indicating that something took an exceptionally long time, as would be the case for most of us running a marathon. Politicians might have a marathon session in parliament to discuss a controversial proposed law. One could also use the noun in this way as well; for example:
The debate was a nine-hour marathon.
You may also be familiar with the origin of the word.The Battle of Marathon was fought in 490BC, part of the first Persian invasion of Greece. According to legend, Pheidippides was a Greek messenger sent from the battlefield after the Athenians won, to announce the victory in Athens. He ran the distance (26 miles, of course) without stopping, and burst into the Athenian assembly, proclaiming Nenikēkamen (We’ve won!) and promptly collapsed and died from exhaustion. The story first appeared in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens, which appeared in the 1st century AD, though there’s little historical evidence to show that it really happened. And you can imagine, with a title like that, that Plutarch may have been exaggerating a little. Though interestingly, there is a story from Herodotus that says that Pheidippides ran the 225 km (140 m!!) from Athens to Sparta, and back again, to ask for assistance before the battle. It seems like Plutarch got this story mixed up with the Athenian army’s march back from Marathon to Athens after the battle. And it’s a good thing too, because if he’d got his facts right, you might have ended up having to run 225km for charity.
There is, or I should say there was, another meaning for marathon however, and that is a delicious combination of chocolate, caramel, nougat, and peanuts. Why, that sounds suspiciously like a Snickers! you might say. And you’d be right in saying that, though in fact, there’s very little suspicious about it at all. What you may not know about Snickers, is that until 1990, it was known as Marathon in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. I distinctly remember, as a child, when the changeover to Snickers was announced. I was aghast! How could they change the name, but more importantly, why!? Everyone liked marathons, no-one had every expressed a desire to eat them under another name, so why bother? (I’m assuming now, being slightly more mature, that it was to save money on production of wrappers and promotional materials) I seem to recall wondering how they would manage to get the word Snickers to fit comfortably on the wrapper. Even though now I’ve for the first time compared the names Marathon and Snickers and realised they have the same number of letters, as a child I always felt that Snickers was shorter, and though it would look terrible on the wrapper, with lots of space (and though both words have eight letters, Snickers does look shorter, doesn’t it? I think it’s the narrower letters).
Of course, after a few weeks of the Snickers regime, I got used to it and forgot all about marathons. But isn’t it strange how I, and others, got quite annoyed at the change? Obviously a large part of that annoyance was down to the almost universal human resistance to change, particularly when it doesn’t seem necessary. But I think such a change seems even more egregious when it involves changing a name. Sure, the makers of the bar insisted it would taste the same. And Shakespeare did say:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
And I’m not one to argue with Shakespeare, usually (though, based on how the events of Romeo & Juliet turn out, he may have intended Juliet to be wrong in making the statement). However, I think that a name can become very attached to that which it represents, to the point of us being unable to imagine something under another name, in some cases. Imagine changing your own name. It can be quite easily done in most countries, but still, I imagine most people would hesitate to change their name, at least without having a long think about it. Our name is often the first thing people know about us. It can play an important part in our conception of ourselves, as well as how others see us, considering the fact that certain names have certain connotations.
We resist name changes because no matter how anyone tries to reassure us that the thing itself will be the same, we know that in some ineffable way, it won’t be. But then, that brings us back round to our general resistance to change, and the fact that names, and words in general, are arbitrary collections of sounds and letters representing things. Marathon of course is not an objectively better name than Snickers: I had simple come to invest the chocolate bar with a sense of Marathonness. But for anyone growing up after the Marathon days, Snickers surely seems like a perfectly appropriate name, and they’d probably hate to see the name changed (unless, somehow, they’re indifferent to Snickers). If we never know a name was changed, does it matter?
To give another childhood example: in the late 80s and early 90s, I loved nothing more on a Friday afternoon than to watch the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Which was not some cheap knock off of the amphibious ninjas, but the title of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Ireland and some other European countries (even the theme tune was changed). The reason for this is that the Conservative UK government in the 80s felt that the original name was too suggestive of violence (the programme was also edited to remove some violence, generally scenes of Michelangelo using his nunchucks), so ninja was replaced with hero, and a few other European countries went with that version. But for quite a few years I was unaware of the difference in name between here and the US, and I never noticed Michelangelo’s lack of violence (I assumed that he just wasn’t as much of a fighter as the others. He was, after all, a party dude). Eventually though, word began to spread around the playground that they were Ninja Turtles in America! And to be honest, that did seem a bit cooler and more transgressive, and I was a little disappointed. But I’d spent long enough in the company of the Hero Turtles, and I didn’t yearn for them to change their name back: heroes seemed appropriate, and had stuck.
They were after all, like the Ancient Athenians, heroes: just of a different breed.