Football, with its 3.5 billion fan base (just under half of the planet), is the world’s most popular sport. Today, more than 250 million people claim to play and the 2022 Qatar World Cup pulled in record audiences of 1.5 billion.
With its long and culturally rich history, it makes sense that there would be more than one way to describe ‘the beautiful game,’ and soccer seems as good as any. But, where does the word soccer originate from and why do people call football soccer?
Read on as we explore the questions and explore the historical and cultural factors that have led to this fascinating variation in footballing terminology.
The word soccer, a term to describe the game of football, is now predominantly used in North America. And, whilst many British people would attribute the origins of this terminology to an American wordsmith, they would be wrong.
In the first half of the 19th century, rugby and football shared many similarities and there were few rules to differentiate between the two. You could say that they were both different versions of the same game.
Then, in 1863 the Football Association was born in an effort to codify the game. Up until this point football had been a game played largely by aristocratic, public school boys. Because there were few rules and each school played by their own, tense negotiations were conducted before matches. In an effort to eradicate this, Ebenezer Cobb Morley established the Football Association in 1863.
Nearly ten years later, rugby followed in football’s footsteps and formed the Rugby Football Union. To differentiate between the two sports they became known as Rugby Football and Association Football.
The public schools that played these sports, perhaps most notably in Oxford and Cambridge, shortened the terms to make them more distinguishable. Association shortened to assoc which sounds like assock. Public school boys at the time enjoyed adding -er to words so assoc became assoccer and eventually, soccer. And just like that, the popular vernacular at the time became soccer. Rugby became rugger and these shortened versions became popular terminology and soon spread across Britain.
However, whilst soccer became part of footballing linguistics, it didn’t ever fully take over, and in the UK, the dominant word remained as football.
At the same time, in the United States, a new sport was emerging. This sport incorporated elements of Rugby Football and Association Football. As this game grew it became known as gridiron football. As with its English association football counterparts, the first word was dropped and gridiron football was shortened to football.
Clearly, a distinction needed to be drawn between the two sports. Association football had a life of its own in the USA. But in 1945, to eliminate confusion, The United States Football Association became the United States Soccer Association. The nickname, jovially initiated by English public school boys became the official title of the sport in America.
And, vernacular created by the English aristocracy became the prevailing American term. Whilst it was still used in the UK, by the 1970’s it had largely disappeared on this side of the pond. In part, the English ‘dropped’ the term soccer because it seemed Americanised.
However, shows like, ‘Soccer Am’ which aired in the UK until recently and the popular ‘Soccer Saturday,’ demonstrate the term still holds some weight.
For those other countries where soccer is the prevailing term for the sport some call football, the likelihood is that they will have competing forms of the game, just like the USA.
Canada, like the USA, also pays Canadian Football and uses the term soccer in just the same way as its neighbour. In Australia, one of their most followed sports is Aussie Rules Football. Whilst this aligns itself to rugby, the term soccer is then used to classify football. In Ireland, home to Gaelic football, soccer is also used to describe what the British call football.
Perhaps the rule of thumb here is, in areas where the term football can be regarded as ambiguous, the term soccer is more explicit.
So is it football, or is it soccer? Does one terminology ‘trump’ the other? Do only purists use the term football?
Well, whilst the term soccer can hold its head up high, being not far short of one hundred and fifty years old, the term football goes back to the 1400’s. A staggering six hundred years old. In this respect, football can take the high ground and in terms of age, it certainly does ‘trump’ soccer.
And, over the years, in Britain, the term football has become synonymous with being the ‘proper’ terminology. Those who are in the know use the word football. Fans who understand the game, its rich, cultural significance and history tend to use the word football. Not using the word football, indeed using the term soccer in Britain, can imply a lack of knowledge about the game or lead to confusion over which sport is being referred to. This stems from the perceived obscurity of the term within UK footballing linguistics. Soccer is very much the American word – despite the fact it was cobbled together in the lofty, aristocratic estates of Oxford and Cambridge.
Dismissal of the term soccer by England fans came to light in the 1980’s as a backlash against the penetration of the sport into American culture. This ‘backlash’ reached its pinnacle in 1990 when England reached the semi-finals of the Italian World Cup. Linguists believe that at that moment, England fans felt the sport, born in their country, but bettered elsewhere, was coming home. And this national pride manifested itself by way of denigrating the perceived Americanism of the word soccer. Linguists have attributed this to the relationship between sports and nationalism and the ‘oddity of linguistic ostracism.’
Debates around footballing linguistics will rage on. But the rationale seems quite simple. Simply football where association football reigns and soccer where a clash between association football and another national sport blurs the lines.
And, at the end of the day, the terminology you use to describe the sport you’re passionate about, is up to you. Football is a global game; loved by all and played by billions. Football, soccer, beautiful game, game of billions – it’s up to you.
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