Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
A day before the U.S. defeated Iran in the World Cup to advance to the knockout stage, Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, paid the U.S. men’s team a rather sniffy compliment: “I can say it like this: They jumped from soccer to football.”
For Mr. Queiroz, who hails from Portugal, “football” is clearly a superior term to “soccer,” the Americans’ preferred name for the sport. Many of the U.S. fans who made the trip to Qatar would beg to differ. Ever since the team’s earlier group-stage matches against Wales and England, supporters have been chanting, “It’s called soccer!”
How did Americans end up calling the sport “soccer” in the first place? Surprisingly enough, “soccer” started off as a British term before it was embraced in the U.S.
At Rugby School, as well as Oxford University, students developed a particular kind of slangy shortening, which involved taking a syllable from a word and adding the suffix “-er.” Thus, “football” became “footer,” “rugby” became “rugger,” and “Association football”—“Assoc.” for short — got nicknamed “socker” or “soccer.” (The “Oxford ‘-er,’” as the lexicographer Eric Partridge dubbed it, lingered in upper-middle-class British slang, with “breakfast” becoming “brekker,” “freshman” becoming “fresher” and so forth.)
The earliest known example of “soccer,” recently discovered by Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro, dates to November 1885, in a letter to the editor of The Marlburian, published by Marlborough College in Wiltshire, England. Complaining about a lack of Association football played at the school, the writer signed off with the pen name “Soccer.” Just a month later, a correspondent for The Oldhallian, a journal of Old Hall School in Wellington, England, reported on a “‘Socker’ game” at Oxford.
As Association football traveled overseas, so did the “soccer” name. The term proved particularly useful in such countries as the U.S., Canada and Australia, where homegrown variants of football were springing up in the late 19th century. The North American form, which grew out of rugby, was originally dubbed “gridiron football” based on the pattern of lines on the field. As it became the dominant sport at the college level and later professionally, the “gridiron” was jettisoned and Americans took to calling their game simply “football.”
In the early 20th century, as Association football started making headway in the U.S., newspaper articles explained the British derivation of the “soccer” sobriquet. The U.S. Football Association, formed in 1913 as a member of the international governing body of FIFA, eventually changed its name to the U.S. Soccer Football Association and then, finally, the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“Soccer” became the standard term in the U.S. even as it became heavily disfavored in British publications starting in the 1980s. In their 2018 book, “It’s Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa),” Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck trace this terminological history, noting that in British English, “soccer” has become “a linguistic outcast, a pariah amongst English words.” Many British football fans, perhaps unaware of the actual origins of “soccer,” continue to decry it as a pernicious Americanism.
In the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup, Frito-Lay played-up his trans-Atlantic divide with a commercial directed by Michael Bay featuring Peyton Manning and David Beckham (along with a raft of other sports stars) bickering over whether the sport is called “soccer” or “football” while munching on chips (or crisps). The fans chanting “It’s called soccer!” are unlikely to convince anyone, but they do at least have some history on their side.