Words and their origins: Often not what you thought

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The Case of Soccer and Football

The European Championchip is in its last week, the English team is still playing and it is high time that I write my football/soccer related post before the tournament is over and football talk will rest for two years before it resumes with the World Cup 2026. Taking place in North America and Mexico, there will probably then be more soccer talk than football talk, at least among the hosts.

Why DO Americans call what (almost) everyone else calls football ‘soccer’? And why do they call a game pretty obviously hardly played with any feet ‘football’. American football comes across as a (rougher) version of rugby, so why wasn’t it called American Rugby?

Very often, when asked which version of English is the older one, people answer with British. The thinking being that English originated on the British Isles. However, English has been spread around the world for centuries. On the one hand it was brought to almost every corner of the world by the travellers, conquerors, and imperialists of the British Empire, on the other, by English speaking emigrants who left their countries for various reasons.

When people leave their home countries, they take their language, their culture and their customes with them. Because of this, words and language varieties are often preserved that underwent changes in the countries of their origin.

This is partly what happened to ‘soccer’, but it is not the whole story. Games played with balls have a very long history and every present day game went through various changes thoughout its existence.

In the mid to late 19th century, players of sports like cricket, baseball, football, rugby, started setting rules in writing, standardizing how the games were to be played.

In England, rugby also began as a football game. Some time in 1823, as documented, a player named William Webb Ellis, picked the ball up and ran over the goal line instead of kicking the ball across. This move changed the game forever. While observers didn’t know what to think at first, they eventually agreed that it was a good idea. Because the game was played at the Rugby School (in Rugby) it became known as rugby football, later shortened to rugby. Hence the game got its name from the town of its origin.

Modern soccer was born in 1863, when representatives from several English schools and clubs got together to standardize a single set of rules for their matches. They called their new organization the Football Association, and their version of the game became known as “Association Football.” The word association was used to distinguish their specific sport from other popular games of the day such as “rugby football”.

The word soccer comes from a slang abbreviation of the word association, which British players of the day adapted as “assoc,” “assoccer” and eventually soccer or soccer football. (The habit of adding –er to nicknames in British vernacular is frequently attributed to Oxford students of that period, and can be found in other sporting slang such as “rugger” for rugby.) The parallel names soccer and football (or the combined soccer football) were used more or less interchangeably to refer to association football until well into the 20th century, at which point football emerged as the dominant name in most parts of the world.

According to research soccer football entered the US during the 1850s with New Orleans’ Scottish, Irish, German and Italian immigrants. The earliest known organized soccer football game was played in 1866 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. However, the American variety of rugby football had already taken hold at eastern universities such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale and eventually became the primary sports at most schools.

Nationally, soccer football became more popular in the US long after the American version of ‘rugby football’ had already been well established under the name ‘American Football’, distinguishing it from other rugby football varieties as played in the UK or Australia. Thus, the name ‘soccer’ for association football survived mainly in the US and (parts of) Canada.


Why Is The Game Called Football (profootballhof.com)

History of soccer in the United States – Wikipedia

Why Do Some People Call It Soccer? | HISTORY

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