• Language: English
  • Pronunciation: ˈsɒkə(r)
  • Etymology: From ‘Association Football’

Football, like a lot of the best ideas, has been around for a good long while.

However, it was only codified in England in the 1860s, when the game became popular with the aristocrats of Eton, Rugby, Oxford and Cambridge. A group of clubs – the Football Assocation – sought to bring a set of standard rules to a particular version of the game (specifically, one which didn’t allow ‘hacking’, or kicking the opponent in the back of the leg).

In 1871, another set of clubs met in London to codify a different version of the game that involved more use of the hands—a variant most closely associated with the Rugby School.

From then on the two versions of football were distinguished by reference to their longer titles, Rugby Football and Association Football.

Where did the term ‘soccer’ come from?

The word ‘soccer’ derives from the soc in Association, with the suffix -er added on the end.

There was (and is) a variant of English slang known as the “Oxford –er” which involves adding the suffix –er to certain words. Hence Rugby Football became colloquially known as ‘rugger’ and Association Football took on the slang term ‘soccer’*, along with variants ‘footer’ and ‘togger’.

Spreading the word

Of the three slang terms, soccer became the most prominent. This is (perhaps apocryphally) said to be because of its use by Charles Wreford-Brown, an Oxford student who went on to captain England in early international games**.

In the UK, soccer was used interchangeably with football for much of the 20th century, with use peaking around World War II, perhaps because of the influx of American soldiers stationed in the UK.

Meanwhile, America and much of the rest of the English speaking, football-playing world took the colloquialism and ran with it***. This was all the more necessary Stateside as American Football had just been dreamed up (1869) and there was ample potential for confusion between the two Footballs.

Reactionary behaviour

Until as late as the 1980s the word was still widely used in the UK. Following this, usage declined and, where it occurred, was only used in an American context. This seems to have been a reaction against the sharp increase in the use of the word in the US, which coincided with the peak in popularity of the first North American Soccer League in the early 1980s.

The future of fútbol

Football/soccer is growing in the US, thanks in no small part to its popularity with the Hispanic population. As this continues, it will be interesting to see whether the influence of the Spanish language – and specifically the word fútbol – has an effect on the terminology used in US English as far as football/soccer goes.

The information in this article is based on a thoroughly interesting paper by Stefan Szymanski, University of Michigan


And finally…

  • An interesting side note to this story is that the origin of the word ‘football’ is not due to the fact that it is played with the feet: football was originally so called because it was played on foot; the aristocratic classes preferred to play their sports on horseback, while the lowly peasants played on foot, hence football – a game played on foot. This would go some way to explaining the proliferation of sports names which include the word ‘football’ but which are not played only with the feet (Gaelic Football, Rugby Football).

*  it was suggested that ‘soccer’ should be spelled ‘socker’ to emphasise its correct pronunciation. Given the US English preference for more phonetically correct spelling, it is perhaps a surprise that this didn’t happen.

** Wreford-Brown was also said to keep several gold sovereigns in his pockets during games, and give one to any lucky player who scored a goal. In the short time we have been writing this blog, I have learned a lot of facts about football. This one is far and away my favourite.

*** or, given how football was played in those days, most likely hoofed it downfield.