If you’re an American who has been to the United Kingdom or have a friend from there, you’ve more than likely been the brunt of many language-related jokes (it’s called English, not American). Miscommunication happens easily within the same language. Is it trousers or pants? Autumn or Fall? Maths or math? Football or soccer?
Despite the fact that the United States is one of the only countries on the planet to refer to the sport as “soccer,” (Australia and South Africa being a couple others) it is in fact not an American derivative. The word, obviously part of the English language, came from England itself.
In It’s Football not Soccer, Stefan Szymanski affirms that the term “soccer” originated in 19th century Britain — not the U.S.A.! Its use in American vernacular has a direct relationship with the sport’s popularity in the country: the more popular the sport became in America, the more popular the term “soccer” became — and began to surpass “football” in regular use.
As the term increased in use on the west side of the Atlantic, “soccer” became less used on the east side. British English lost the regular use of the word so much that it turned to mocking the “American” term.
The precursor to the popular sport that is played today, with the iconic black and white ball, was first named “football” in the English language in 1486. For centuries, “football” was the usual term.
However, there were numerous variations of the sport. Different rules of the game eventually developed it into different football derivatives. Examples include Gaelic football and rugby, both of which still exist today. In 1863 the Football Association (F.A.) was founded and standardized the rules of classic football. It’s at this regulatory point that the term “soccer” began to develop. The word itself comes from an abbreviation of the official name of the sport, “association football.”
In 1869, the first recorded American (gridiron) football game took place between Princeton and Rutgers. The F.A.’s standardization of official sporting events helped to distinguish gridiron football from what would become known in the United States as soccer.
At the turn of the century, standardization helped raise concerns about the damaging effects of gridiron football, a sport which sometimes turned fatal. In an attempt to veer away from supporting such a violent past-time, some Americans began campaigning to push the popularity of the F.A.’s sport. At this time, across the Atlantic, “soccer” was a popular term for classic football at elite British universities. Americans began to use it in order to distinguish between gridiron football and classic football. It took some time to catch on, though.
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In a 1905 Letter to the Editor, Francis H. Tabor shamed The New York Times for using the word “socker.” He writes, “In the first place, there is no such word, and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.” Tabor goes on to explain that “soccer” is the word that the Times was probably looking for, but is still disparaging over its use, referring to it as heresy.
Such religious fanaticism has always surrounded the sport. If fans within the same country aren’t fighting over club team loyalties, they’re ganging up together against other countries during the World Cup.
Being held every four years, however, means that non-World Cup years leave fans teeming with competitive energy that they can’t let out. That’s when terminology becomes an easy target.
By the 1980s, soccer and football were two distinctly different sports in America, and “soccer” was a joke to the British who were clearly unfamiliar with their own country’s recently retired slang.
America may not have qualified for the last World Cup in 2018, but some of the top, football-playing countries in the world have noted a significant increase in the quality of the American team in recent years. Even though they are the only ones in the world to be professional soccer players. But it’s not their fault: blame the British!
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