In a Word: Soccer or Football?

Why is it ‘soccer’ in North America but ‘football’ in the rest of the world? Blame rugby.


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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

With World Cup competition heating up, and especially after the U.S. men’s team’s defeat of Iran this week, there’s an infectious new feeling in the air: soccer fever.

Or is it football fever?

In most of the world, the FIFA World Cup is all about football — FIFA, after all, stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Of course, here in North America, we call the game soccer, and football is a completely different game. What follows is the story of why that is.

Games that involve kicking something around — a ball, a rock, a stuffed animal hide — have been common around the world for millennia. And with every new generation in each culture, the rules of play evolve and change.

Cut to the isle of Britain in the second half of the 14th century. That’s when we find the first known appearance in the English written record the word football, in reference to the ball itself and not the game. That would come a little later. Some moderately organized form of kicking a football around caught on and spread across the island — apparently a little too much in some areas: In the mid-15th century, football (as well as golf) was forbidden in Scotland because it was interfering with soldiers’ archery practice.

Football didn’t reach widespread obsessive levels in Britain until the early 17th century, but even then, opposing teams had to agree on rules before each game, so the games could vary widely. For example, by 1830, a rule that allowed a player to pick up the ball and run with it was common at one public school in central England. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the town where these rules were used was listed as Rochberie, but by the 1800s, it was known as Rugby, and so this version was called Rugby football — and eventually just rugby.

Meanwhile, in 1848, an athletics organization out of Cambridge published the first set of standardized rules for “no-hands” football; that was the version of football that proliferated through Europe. In 1863, the first football association was founded in England. In the land of Shakespeare, among a people well-known for their wit and wordplay, it was named “the Football Association.”

The very next year, 1864, the first rugby clubs started forming. This means that the two sports — the hands-free version and the handsy one — were competing with each other, not only for athletes and audiences, but in the language. To clearly set themselves apart from Rugby football, the Football Association people once again flexed their language skills and called their hands-free version association football.

Now, whether you’re a sports journalist filling narrow newspaper columns or a 20-something athlete with a few teeth knocked out, the 19 letters and 7 syllables of association football could present some difficulties. Naturally, it was abbreviated, first as assoc. and then as the slang word soccer, a usage first attributed during the last 15 years of the 1800s. At around the same time, rugby, following the same linguistic course, was also referred to with the slang term ruggers, using the first syllable of the game’s name. (I leave it to you to figure out why the first syllable of association wasn’t used to for soccer.)

The word soccer was considered mere slang in Great Britain, and as rugby became more prevalent over the longer Rugby football, soccer became less necessary. So the British joined with the naming predilections of the rest of Europe and simply called the game football, because there could no longer be any confusion.

Meanwhile, both games made it to North America as well, but clubs over here continued to tinker with the rules. In 1869, rugby teams from Princeton and Rutgers played a version that, among other rule changes, allowed for a forward pass, a move that, then as well as today, is illegal in standard rugby rules. They liked the rule, and continued to play the game.

Because standard rugby rules were solidifying throughout the rest of the world, this new American version could no longer be called Rugby football. Based on where the game originated, they could have called it Princers, or Brunner (the Rutgers main campus is in New Brunswick, New Jersey), or even, improbably, Rutgby. By like the British athletic wordsmiths before them, they called it American football — to us Yanks, just football.

That didn’t leave many options for association football, so when the slang soccer came around, it filled a niche too perfectly to let it go.

And that’s the family tree not only of the words soccer, football, and rugby, but of the sports themselves. And it all started millennia ago, when some bored child thought it might be fun to kick something for a while.

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  1. The Canadian Football League (CFL) has a heavy flavour of Rugby incorporated, expect with helmets and pads. There are still plays that can be called in the CFL (but rarely are) that have heavy hints of the Rugby world.
    Speaking of Rugby, there was an English settlement in Tennessee named Rugby. It’s still there with a post office, general store (RM Brooks), church, and library. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never been.


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