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Soccer vs. Football: Naming the International Game

By Alison at Accredited Language
Posted on Monday, June 21, 2010
Category: Etymology, History, Sports

football vs. soccerThe 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.

25 Responses to “Soccer vs. Football: Naming the International Game”

  1. bo Says:

    We also use the term “soccer” here in Canada (both in English and French). We used “football” both for American Football and Canadian Football (quite similar to American Football but with slightly different rules).

  2. Jacob Says:

    In the UK football is referred to as Football, and rugby as rugby or rugger.

    The US used to call football… football also, and had the USA football association long before the invention of gridiron or NFL.

    Football comes from the 1300′s when people used their feet to move a ball down a street, handball was the use of hands and hockey the use of sticks.

    Gridiron came from rugby league and is a basic sport where only two or three players ever touch the ball, most merely block. It is known worldwide for steroid usage and lack of world class athletes as participants.

    The Olympics and FIFA only accept one football.


  3. John Says:

    Your update is very strange. I am British and have been involved in football all of my life. Anyone who uses the term ‘soccer’ here is generally quickly corrected.

    Jacob’s comments are correct. As a football fan though, I tend to refer to rugby derogatively as ‘egg-chasing’!

  4. Dan at Accredited Language Says:

    Sorry for the confusion, John — we overstated the case a bit when we made that update!

    I adjusted the update to remove the implication that “soccer” is the most common term. Though while it might not be the most prevalent, neither is it unheard of!

  5. walltoall Says:

    The Irish (south of the border esp.) differentiate between THREE types of “football” ie ‘rugby’, ‘soccer’ and ‘gaelic’ varieties.

    For many decades, football was a contentious political issue for Ireland and soccer represented repression by a foreign power to a sizeable number of Irish people.

    Now all three disciplines are treated equally and some footballers have managed to excel in more than one, though never to my knowledge in all three.

  6. Mandarin Says:

    Around Europe, the term football (using the words for foot and ball) refers to the worldwide sport that in the USA is called soccer, while the American version of football is usually called just American football, not gridiron. The game is very different, but still more closely related to rugby. I’ve seen an internet-meme describing the sport as “hand-egg,” which to European eyes is a pretty good description, as in football (European) only the goalie is allowed to touch the ball.

  7. Mandarin Says:

    Touch the ball with hands, that is, or in case the ball is out of court, in which case it allowed to be thrown into play. Inside the play court, touching the ball with hands is not allowed.

  8. xclusive Says:

    In South Africa were refer to it as football. As far as American Football is concerned. I can reassure you that by converting 15 of our average rugby players. We can defeat any top NFL(correct me if am wrong)clubs.

  9. rich Says:

    You’re kidding right? American football players are bigger,stronger,and much faster than Rugby players. This is fact! There are more deaths attributed to american football than rugby,look it up! Just look up Ray lewis and i dare you to find any rugby player built like that!

  10. Grant Says:

    If “soccer” is the slang for “assocation football” then soccer IS football. Therefore this whole debate seems to just be the Americans being awkward.
    In terms of world sport, you only have to go to Europe, Asia, South America and Africa to know that football is huge whereas gridiron is very niche. Although the Superbowl is getting more popular here in England each year, and I find that friends who do watch American Football refer to it as NFL. As in “Do you watch NFL?”

  11. Duane Says:

    “Football” refers to any game where the ball is kicked at some point during the game and is the term used for the most popular code in the region. In Australia we refer to Aussie Rules as “footy” or “football” if you’re from an AFL dominated area, or if you’re from Rugby League (different to Rugby, differentiated as Rugby Union) territory those are the words used for that code.

    Soccer is generally known as “the game girls, Poms and poofters play”.

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  13. Allan H. Smith Says:

    A very interesting debate, is whether Rugby Football is more dangerous than American Football. Certainly, American Football players are generally bigger but there is no proof that they are any faster or fitter. In fact I would say the opposite is true. I think that the injuries involved in Rugby are different than in AF. I also think the padding worn in AF, that was originally designed to prevent and protect players from superficial injuries have in fact lead to more crippling spinal injuries in the modern game, because of the blatant use of the helmet while tackling. So, it’s not the difference in the rules that has caused this but it’s the stupidity of wearing helmets that are turned into weapons that has created needless spinal injuries and deaths.

  14. Paul D Says:

    I have to agree with Allan, protection is not all its cracked up to be. When someone is running at you with a helmet zoned in on you there is going to be a much more serious injury than someone who is not wearing a helmet, as they fear causing injuries to themselves. Therefore it would be the protective gear that is actually causing the injuries / deaths and not the size / speed / skill of the players

  15. Paul D Says:

    As for the football vs. soccer debate take a look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sD_8prYOxo

  16. Professional_bird Says:

    Duane and other AFL v Soccer fans
    The game “football” has been documented as being played in UK & Europe since at least 13th century….how long has it being going in Oz????

  17. Seth Says:

    If the Brits hadn’t come up with the word “socca” to differentiate association football from rugby football, we wouldn’t have this rubbish debate. You seriously can’t get mad if a region calls their most popular code “football” and then has different names for everything else…when you came up with the alternate yourself (soccer). I’ll continue to call sports as I know them by, and who should care except for some loon who’s probably never played, and is too dumb to carry on in meaningful discussion. My only rule is have respect for what a sport is called when in the country of a specific event. My English friends at school who have accompanied me to various college and NFL games called it football. If i was to ever go to a Premier League game, I would call it football; same as if I went to an AFL game in Australia. On the couch watching the game (or better yet, flipping between soccer, rugby, and football if you are fortunate enough to have all those channels), enjoying a few cold ones is the appropriate place to get into this discussion. Otherwise, shut up, and enjoy!

  18. Master Says:

    Who created the language? The English or americans? Well, we call the language “English” not “American” ?

  19. Graham Says:

    @Seth is right; most of the other stuff on here is wrong, or at least misguided.

    @Jacob – the old form of football that started in medieval England (now known as ‘folk football’) was almost completely a handling game.

    There’s a very good explanation of all this on here: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Why_is_soccer_called_Football_everywhere_outside_North_America

    For the stories behind all these sports, I recommend (with no bias at all, obviously) my ebook – please click on my name for info.

  20. Leigh Says:

    Why do Americans fail to look beyond their own borders when writing this type of thing – you are not alone in your use of the term ‘soccer’? I grew playing and refereeing ‘soccer’ here in Australia – it will never be football to me. Football is either rugby league, union or Aussie rules. And even though there is a push by those who run the game to get us to call it ‘football’, most people over 30 or so would associate with the term soccer. No one seems to mind too much if you continue to call it such.

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  22. RJ O'Connor Says:

    @ Xclusive

    You have no idea what you are talking about.
    In South Africa everybody refers to football as SOCCER in general speech.

    You can also not compare rugby and gridiron players. Two different styles of sport. Different ball sizes and different fitness tests.

    Each one will beat the other own with their respective sport.

  23. Jason Says:

    The God’s honest truth is that the word “soccer” is an Oxford abbreviation of the term Association Football, in an effort to differentiate it from rugby football in the 1880′s. Get over yourselves, Brits. You gave us the word soccer, we just ran with it.

  24. Footall Says:

    Blame it on the first guy who came up with the term “soccer” in 1889. Americans and Australians, at least start kicking the ball more than the “soccer”.

  25. Fatty Says:

    If you go by population, the majority of the English speaking world* calls it soccer. Football refers to something else (American football, Canadian football, Australian football).

    *English speaking world: countries where the majority of the population speaks English as a first language.

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