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Preserving the original meaning of ‘Boston Strong’

Fans held a homemade sign as Bruins center Chris Kelly stepped off the ice in April.

Associated Press

Fans held a homemade sign as Bruins center Chris Kelly stepped off the ice in April.

Immediately after the Boston Marathon bombings, “Boston Strong” emerged as a powerful slogan. It represented a proud mix of resiliency and defiance, an attitude rooted in local culture. Then, it became co-opted. Beyond fundraising, entrepreneurs plastered the phrase on T-shirts and bracelets. Companies filed trademark applications. And sports fans took it over as a rallying cry.

This has led to the state of affairs we’re in now: a fierce protectiveness of the phrase “Boston Strong” when applied to sports teams, particularly the Bruins, who are battling the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals. Like the guy who once wielded a “Toronto Stronger” sign, a Chicago T-shirt company met with serious vitriol last week after it started to sell “Chicago Stronger” T-shirts. The company eventually pulled the shirts, but its leaders lashed back at Boston fans for using the “Boston Strong” slogan for sports and self-aggrandizement.

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Chicagoans need to be conscious of good taste. They also need to understand the emotional impact of the bombings, the way “Boston Strong” has become intertwined with a sense of recovery. But Bostonians need to be faithful to the original meaning of slogan, too. Citing “Boston Strong” to remember the Marathon victims in formal presentations or wearing the slogan on T-shirts or other clothing is entirely fitting. But waving “Boston Strong” signs when the team scores a goal turns the phrase into a universal expression of triumph. By referencing the Marathon, fans suggest that any retort is off-limits — while in truth, a good-natured back-and-forth between cities is part of the joy of a championship series.

Even after only two months, it’s possible to lose sight of what “Boston Strong” truly represents: the victims of the bombing, now rebuilding their lives; the law enforcement efforts during the manhunt; the decision, by athletes and organizers, to run the Marathon in 2014. When connected to the Marathon alone, the slogan does feel sacrosanct. And if “Boston Strong” instead becomes a generic rallying cry for all things Boston, sports or otherwise? That may be just fine — but it also means that satire and mockery are fair game.

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