Football, Soccer, What's In A Word?
June 9, 2014

Football, Soccer, What’s In A Word?

The eyes of the world will be on Brazil for the next few weeks, as the traveling circus and cash cow known as the World Cup comes to town. That’s the football World Cup, by the way. Or is it the soccer World Cup? Does it matter? Well, to some people, it does matter — and it matters a lot. Love it or hate it, football is massive all over the planet. No other game is so big in so many places. So how can it have more than one name? It seems that some people get so stirred up about this, that they trade insults online and a bit of nationalistic rivalry creeps in. The “big divide,” though, is usually seen as that between America and the rest of the world. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

In America, the word is “soccer” — vehemently, unswervingly, and with no debate. To most of the world, it’s “football,” pure and simple. Or maybe not when you read this list. As most people know, the word soccer itself is derived from the historic, official name of the UK game “Association Football.” The argument is now apparently so intense that one academic has written a paper on the subject entitled “It’s football, not soccer! Or is it?”

Stefan Szymanski is a professor at the University of Michigan and he is an expert in kinesiology. You don’t come across one of those every day do you? I confess, I had to look it up. It is described as the “science dealing with the interrelationship of the physiological processes and anatomy of the human body with respect to movement.”

Szymanski’s paper is scholarly to a fault and immaculately researched, with graphs and charts documenting the rise and fall of the words soccer and football. Impressive though the paper might be, it may represent a bit of overkill to some minds. If you don’t have time to wade through it all, he sums it all up very neatly in a short video. To put it in a nutshell, professor Szymanski’s deep delving into the historic usage of the two words has demonstrated that the word soccer was in common usage in the UK until the 1970s, though often frowned upon by some of the more stuffy press. I can vouch for this personally. As a scrawny kid kicking a ball about in the good old English dirt with my mates, the game we were playing was soccer.

According to Szymanski, use of the word in the UK fell into decline in the 1980s, precisely at the time its use became common in the States. The implication is that the British somehow took exception to the American usurpation of the word, and that the whole thing is about objections to “Americanisms,” or even to America. This is probably unfair. More likely, to my mind, it was just one of those natural fluctuations, the fascinating ebb and flow of language. At any rate, I do agree with the good professor’s final conclusion that the word soccer is here to stay and that anyone who objects should just “get over it.”

My preference is for “football” nowadays, simply because its a better descriptor. Man is, as someone said (Douglas Adams, I believe), a bipedal upright carbon-based lifeform. What would be more natural as he lopes along for him to kick things at his feet and, if he finds something round to kick that doesn’t hurt his foot, for that to become a game?

Foot + ball = football.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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