Posted on Monday, June 21, 2010
Category: Etymology, History, Sports
The soccer vs. football linguistic debate is one many US citizens are familiar with.
If you’ve ever tried talking soccer with someone of non-US origins, no doubt you’ve promptly been asked, “Oh, you mean football?”
While those of us from the States may feel like the rest of the world has it wrong, Americans are pretty much the only people in the world who have stuck to the term soccer*.
Just where does the term soccer – and the ensuing soccer vs. football debate – come from anyway, and which term is the right one?
First there was Football …
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the game generally referred to as football the world over – what we backward Americans call “soccer” – finds its origins in 19th century Britain. Prior to the middle ages, “folk football” games were played in local communities throughout modern-day Britain. Although it’s likely that these early games weren’t exactly the same as what we recognize as football today, the term is traced back to this time period, when it referred to these traditional folk games which were played on foot.
The modernized version of the game which we now recognize as football developed later, around 1850. As the Industrial Revolution created more leisure time, people looked for new forms of entertainment to pass their new-found free time. Football became a popular option and many trade unions and schools created recreational teams. Although the first official leagues are thought to have risen in England and Scotland, football clubs could be found in most of Europe by the early 1900s.
… and then there was Soccer
Traditional football migrated across the pond in the mid-19th century and by the 1880s, Canadian and American teams started playing each other in informal matches. Canada soon dropped its football interest to pursue the more climate-appropriate ice hockey, however, and by the early 20th century a new sports craze was taking over in the states: gridiron football, or what the rest of the world now calls “American Football.”
In the meantime, the term “soccer” had developed. Dated to 1889, the term “socca” was initially created as an abbreviated version of “association football” which was often used to differentiate the game from “rugby football.” In the US, this shortened slang version evolved from “socca” to “socker” and finally “soccer” – and there it stayed.
Football or Soccer – Which is Right?
Whether you say football or soccer likely depends on where you were born. While Americans still stick to soccer, the rest of the world has stayed with football. Considering the historical development of each term, it’s not really possible to pinpoint one or the other as “right” or “wrong” in the football vs. soccer debate.
If you’re American, just be prepared to defend your use of the term “soccer” or the fact that you use the word “football” in reference to “American football” when talking to football fans from other countries in the world. In any case, now that you’ve got some historical background to back you up, you should be able to get away with it.
*UPDATE: Thanks to one of our readers, who pointed out that the US is not quite alone in their preference for “soccer.” It seems that some sports fans in the British Isles refer to rugby as “football,” and use “soccer” the same way those of us in the States do. “Soccer” is also used in South Africa, Canada and Australia.