There are many American words and phrases that can make us Brits anything from amused, confused to teeth-gritting annoyed. Surely, besides alumiNUM (shudders), soccer has got to be one of the biggest offenders. You’d think the word would be self-explanatory: foot and ball. American football couldn’t be further from the concept, and yet seem to have usurped the nomenclature and renamed out beloved football the jarring “soccer”. And frankly, we’re owed an explanation.
Obviously, first and foremost, the most basic explanation is that they simply needed to distinguish the two sports. Sports mania in America is far heavier skewed towards American football, with soccer being far further down the list of avidly watched sports, after Baseball, Basketball and Hockey. It’d be easy to get annoyed at our cousins across the Atlantic for this seemingly dastardly act, but sadly we have bad news – the term “soccer” is actually all our fault.
It turns out, in the 1800s, a bunch of Oxford University Students started to derive new forms of the medieval versions of “football” with their own sets of rules. While the football that we’re familiar with now was arguably the most popular of these newly formulated sports, it was by no means the only one being played.
Rugby also rose in popularity, and was incidentally named after a boarding school. In 1863, the brand spanking new Football Association formalised the rules and these two sports became known as Rugby Football and Association Football.
Pretty soon, they were colloquially referred to as “rugger” and “assoccer”, which eventually was shortened to “soccer”. Interestingly enough, up until the 1980’s, the term “soccer” was very commonly used in the UK to refer to football and it wasn’t until the rise of American Football that Brits started to dislike allusions to the US sport and referred to the sport as just football.
Meanwhile, over in America, the origin story of American Football is basically that they took “rugger” and “assoccer” and made a baby, with lots of padding. This hybrid sport was actually called gridiron football, which became much more popular than either rugby or football – and since gridiron football is somewhat of a messy mouthful, in no time at all the new game was just referred to as football, while football football went back to its traditional “soccer” designation.
But while we might easily think that “soccer” is a vulgar Americanism, the term is actually favoured in several other places. The use of “soccer” is less to do with any kind of linguistic rebellion and more to distinguish the games, due to their own versions and specific rules to the country’s unique take on football. Canada actually has its own, slightly different gridiron football league, the CFL. Australia also has its own take on rugby football and Ireland has Gaelic football, which was derived from medieval mêlée.
Ultimately, for sports fanatics, the word they use to describe what we Brits refer to as football is more about emphasising their own versions of the game, rather than trying to shrug off traditional English language – which as we now know, started this whole terminology mess in the first place, so who can really blame them for all the ambiguity!