The Rio Report

Mystery solved: Don’t blame the Americans! The real origin of the word ‘soccer’

The Rio Report

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It never takes long if you find yourself watching a big World Cup match at a party or pub before the inevitable question comes up: why do some people - and particularly Americans - insist on calling football "soccer"?

Inevitably, someone pipes up in a loud voice about Americans ignorantly renaming the sport to suit themselves, while another suggests that the NFL is to blame for the confusion.

Well, now you can wade in and inform both parties that they are the misguided and ignorant ones. Politely and amicably, of course, though we'll allow you a little smugness.

The word "soccer" is actually British. It derives from the game's proper name, association football, with the "soc" bit taken from the word "association" .

The reason it came into popular usage was simple: in the 19th century, football and rugby were both commonly known as football, the former dubbed "association football" and the latter "rugby football". But both phrases are a bit of a mouthful, however, so they were popularly shortened to "soccer" and "rugger" to keep things simple.

Now, your grandad and anybody else over the age of 50 probably knows this instinctively, though younger sports fans might well not since the word "soccer" hasn't been widely used in Britain for three or four decades.

Yet on the other side of the pond, solving such problems is actually a full time job. And one that employed University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski for several months as, quite amazingly, he wrote a research paper to point out all of the above.

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Szymanski's "research" goes to town on the various different types of football played in early 19th century Britain:

"The rugby football game was shortened to 'rugger,' a term recognised in British English to the present day, and the association football game was, plausibly, shortened to 'soccer'" Szymanski wrote.

Americans merely adopted the colloquialism, and understandably so given that their own, homegrown American Football (invented in 1869) would have been likely confused with the English kick-and-run sport.

It was only by the 1980s, claims Szymanski, that the Brits decided to largely disassociate themselves with the term "soccer" due to it having become considered too "American". So a term created by Brits was effectively ditched.

"In the US it seems to have had a more democratic flavour – everyone used it – and more easily shifted from a colloquialism to a proper name because of the utility of distinguishing it from the other 'football'," Szymanski explained.

"Since 1980 the usage of the word 'soccer' has declined in British publications, and where it is used, it usually refers to an American context. This decline seems to be a reaction against the increased usage in the US which seems to be associated with the highpoint of the [North American Soccer League] around 1980."

So perhaps it is time for snobbery and frustration towards American "soccer" fans to dissipate. After all, the poor folk 'over the pond' merely adopted accepted an established term. So there.

Now all we have to do is persuade them that "baseball" is actually called "rounders", and that hockey should be played on grass or astroturf rather than at an ice rink, and all will be right with the world.

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