#WordUse Series: Blame It On the Bossa Nova … er, the Brits

I am more sensitive than most to how many differences there are in the way native English speakers from different regions or countries wield the language. Some years ago in a lengthy conversation with a European friend—some of which had to do with how differently we spoke, in spite of that fact that we were both speakers of English—I had the occasion to wonder if I should change a particular word to the word my friend would use. And my friend said, “Just be you. I know what you mean.”

So I did/do/am.

And since soccer’s been in the news this past year, we’ve had more than one occasion to bump into one of our linguistic differences—the Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy. When I am talking with my European friends, I have no beef with their use of football rather than soccer and out of respect for clarity, I use “American football” when I’m referring to, well, American football. They don’t seem bothered when I say soccer, either. No one I know is getting too bent about the verbiage. The Irishman teases me on occasion (imagine John Wayne drawling “Soccer”) but it’s all in good fun.

Then American friend of mine declared the name of the game is always football, never soccer. And I get it, I do. But … wait just a minute, there.

This game, this kicking-around-a-ball-with-feet thing, has been around since the ancient Greeks and Chinese. They called it Phaininda in Greece and Zhan Guo Ce in China at the time. There were others, of course, but the game we play now is formally called association football and was codified just a little over 150 years ago. Wikipedia tells us,

The modern rules of association football are based on the mid-19th century efforts to standardise the widely varying forms of football played in the public schools of England. … These ongoing efforts contributed to the formation of The Football Association (The FA) in 1863. … FIFA, the international football body, was formed in Paris in 1904 and declared that they would adhere to Laws of the Game of the [English] Football Association.

Still with me? The rules of the game were codified in England—so it’s their game—and the name association football was coined “to distinguish the game from the other forms of football played at the time, specifically rugby football” (Wikipedia again), which was codified in 1871. American football was codified in 1880. The Irish have Gaelic football, which was codified in 1885. There were, and are, lots of games called football.

So where’d the word soccer come from? It may surprise you: the Brits. Yep. It’s theirs too.

It’s slang, y’all. (And oh, how I love slang.)

The word soccer is an abbreviation of association (from assoc.); it arose in English universities in the 1880s—and you know universities are fertile breeding grounds for slang of all types. My English and Irish friends routinely use words like brekkie (breakfast) and prezzie (gifts, presents), and soccer was born the same way. Wikipedia says, “A quirk of British culture is the permanent need to familiarise names by shortening them”—and so it was with the two football games, which became rugger (rugby football) and soccer (association football). This etymology is detailed in several online sources, including the Smithsonian, the AtlanticHuffPost, and even the Daily Mail.

Both words were used interchangeably in England for decades. And the word soccer, when exported with the game itself, particularly caught on in countries where there was another game involving a ball and feet (as in Australia, Canada, and the United States, for example).

But something else happened. The Atlantic elaborates:

If the word “soccer” originated in England, why did it fall into disuse there and become dominant in the States? To answer that question, Szymanski counted the frequency with which the words “football” and “soccer” appeared in American and British news outlets as far back as 1900.

What he found is fascinating: “Soccer” was a recognized term in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t widely used until after World War II, when it was in vogue (and interchangeable with “football” and other phrases like “soccer football”) for a couple decades, perhaps because of the influence of American troops stationed in Britain during the war and the allure of American culture in its aftermath. In the 1980s, however, Brits began rejecting the term, as soccer became a more popular sport in the United States.

Wikipedia says, gently, “some speakers of British English began to deprecate soccer for reasons that remain unclear; it is possible they mistook it for an Americanism.” I think that’s being very nice about it, but OK. They’re just being them and letting us be us. :)

There are plenty of word situations like this. Writer/educator Ben Yagoda has a whole blog about them (Not One-Off Britishisms). It’s fun, but people on both sides of the Pond can get testy about words they believe are theirs and theirs alone. I’ve written about Britishisms and Americanisms here and elsewhere—bottom line, I enjoy letting them be them.

And that extends to the use of football rather than soccer in reference to association football. The NY Times suggests it’s become hip, in certain American circles (“a public display of global cultural literacy”). Sportswriter (and Englishman) Jonathan Clegg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes these hipsters “may be the most derivative, excessive and utterly ridiculous collection of sports fans on the planet” and that “all of this feels like an elaborate affectation.” Clegg wishes these Americans would just … be Americans.

My first husband was born in Central America; he grew up bilingual in California. His father had played on a World Cup team in his youth, and after the young family moved to the United States, Senior spent a lot of time organizing small soccer consortiums in which he and his sons could play. This was in the 1960s and ’70s, and the players were largely culled from the local Mexican and Portuguese communities. I was well aware of the Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy when I hung around with this ESL group, but not a man among them held his nose at the word soccer. They knew what we were talking about, as my European friends do now.

So let’s use soccer, friends, and just be ourselves. It’s a perfectly acceptable, historic term. It’s authentic. It’s organic. It’s us. That’s good. And irrespective of what you call the game, we’re still world champions.*

* Lest you think I’m indulging in jingoism, the Irishman gave me that final line. Thanks, honey. It’s perfect. :) … or it was in 2015, when this post originally ran.

Tweet: The Great Soccer–Football Dichotomy. It started in England.
Tweet: Both football & soccer were used interchangeably in England for decades.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Posted in Words & Language | Tagged as: , , , | Bookmark the permalink | Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.