By Uri Friedman
New Zealand’s largest newspaper is deeply conflicted. With the World Cup underway in Brazil, should The New Zealand Herald refer to the “global round-ball game” as “soccer” or “football”? The question has been put to readers, and the readers have spoken. It’s “football”—by a wide margin.
We in the U.S., of course, would disagree. And now we have a clearer understanding of why. In May, Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, published a paper debunking the notion that “soccer” is a semantically bizarre American invention. In fact, it’s a British import. And the Brits used it often—until, that is, it became too much of an Americanism for British English to bear.
The story begins, like many good stories do, in a pub. As early as the Middle Ages, Szymanski explains, the rough outlines of soccer—a game, a ball, feet—appear to have been present in England. But it wasn’t until the sport became popular among aristocratic boys at schools like Eton and Rugby in the nineteenth century that these young men tried to standardize play. On a Monday evening in October 1863, the leaders of a dozen clubs met at the Freemasons’ Tavern in London to establish “a definite code of rules for the regulation of the game.” They did just that, forming the Football Association. The most divisive issue was whether to permit “hacking,” or kicking an opponent in the leg (the answer, ultimately, was ‘no’).
But that wasn’t where the controversy ended. In 1871, another set of clubs met in London to codify a version of the game that involved more use of the hands—a variant most closely associated with the Rugby School.
“From this point onwards the two versions of football were distinguished by reference to their longer titles, Rugby Football and Association Football (named after the Football Association),” Szymanski writes. “The rugby football game was shortened to ‘rugger,'” while “the association football game was, plausibly, shortened to ‘soccer.'”
Both sports fragmented yet again as they spread around the world. The colloquialism “soccer” caught on in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, in part to distinguish the game from American football, a hybrid of Association Football and Rugby Football. (Countries that tend to use the word “soccer” nowadays—Australia, for example—usually have another sport called “football.”)
In support of this theory, Szymanski cites a 1905 letter to the editor of The New York Times from Francis Tabor of New York, who warned of the spreading “heresy” of the word “socker”:
It seems a thousand pities that in reporting Association football matches THE NEW YORK TIMES, in company with all the other newspapers, should persistently call the game “Socker.”
In the first place, there is no such word, and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.
You may search the English papers through and through, and in all the long columns of descriptions of games you will not find even “Soccer” (which is probably the word intended.)
As a matter of fact, it was a fad at Oxford and Cambridge to use “er” at the end of many words, such as foot er, sport er, and as Association did not take an “er” easily, it was, and is, sometimes spoken of as Soccer.
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.
In recent decades, “The penetration of the game into American culture, measured by the use of the name ‘soccer,’ has led to backlash against the use of the word in Britain, where it was once considered an innocuous alternative to the word ‘football,'” Szymanski explains.
Football. Soccer. Calcio. We’re not so different after all. But tell that to these guys: