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Football or soccer? Words matter until, English history suggests, they don’t

September 28, 2018

The British call it football. The French do, too. The Spanish and Portuguese and their linguistic adherents call it fanduacute;tbol or futebol. Yet here in the United States, we call it soccer and you dont have to look far to find a sneering fan who insists our language is all wrong.

Why the difference, and does it even matter?

Anyone who insists that soccer is a vulgar Americanism has their facts wrong. The word soccer was coined at the Rugby School, in Warwickshire, England, where, as you have probably guessed, the game of rugby was invented. Students there took association football the longer name for the game shortened association to assoc and stuck an -er on the end of it.

The point was to distinguish soccer from another form of football, just as we do in the United States today. For them it was rugby, for us its gridiron football. This is why the term soccer is popular in other Commonwealth countries as well. Canada, Australia and South Africa all use the term, to draw a distinction between it and other games that are called football.

Soccer isnt the only term thats British in origin and gets occasionally taken to be a base Americanism. Game is a far older term than match. The same is true for field versus pitch. And at any rate, all four are very old English words. Yet youll still find people who insist that a football match must be played on a pitch, rather than a soccer game being played on a field.

There is a long tradition of the British disdaining Americanisms that are actually British in origin. In his book The Mother Tongue, author Bill Bryson gives a rundown, dating back to such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who hated the word talented even though it was first used in England in 1422.

Passion for the language of the sport is a political matter, not a lexical one. If I write about soccer games rather than football matches, about uniforms rather than kits, or league standings instead of league tables, its perfectly clear what I mean and what Im trying to convey even to someone in an English pub. Those who criticize me for not using the proper terminology are making a point about what they feel is the proper version of soccer.

Fans from other countries often condescend to fans in the United States, as if we Americans couldnt possibly understand the varied mysteries of football or fanduacute;tbol or futebol. Were usually lumped in with China as countries that have more money than soccer knowledge. Condescension about language is just part of that larger condescension, and at the heart of all that is fear.

England spread the English language around the world with conquest, but it was the United States that turned English into the closest thing there is to a global language. When it comes to soccer, the fear is that American (and Chinese) money will eventually swamp the historical, European roots of the game. It seems a long way off.

Then again, so did the rise of American English to that talented poet Coleridge.

Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. jmarthaler@gmail.com

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