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The thing that separates North American soccer fans and players from their international football-playing counterparts—aside from skill—is that for some strange reason they do not use the same word to identify the sport. The rules are mostly identical and the pitch is the same. Making matters more confusing is the added factor that North Americans already have a game called “football” (NFL, CFL, CFB) that is completely unrelated (well, unrelated in the modern sense) to international “football”.
The purists around the world always seem to frown at the mention of the word “soccer”. Heck, even North American fans of the beautiful game scoff at “soccer”, and choose “football”, “footy”, or anything other than “soccer”, as if the very word is dirty.
What got me thinking is how and why the term “soccer” began in the first place, seeing as how it is an older sport than NFL. The answer is a little surprising, yet difficult to explain. Regardless, let’s forge forward.
The Origins of the Word Soccer
Let’s begin the explanation with the answer; “Soccer” is not a North American invented word. In fact, its origins are in England. The game was called “Soccer” by the upper class who played the game for 17 years before the middle and lower classes took up the sport and called it “football”.
Perhaps some of you knew that, but I’d hazard a guess that most didn’t. In a nutshell, here’s what happened…
During the mid-19th century, boys had the odd propensity to nickname everything, oftentimes adding an “er” to the end of a word. So, Rugby became “Rugger”, and Association Football (the earliest form of the current game) became “Assoccer”, and soon after that was simply called “soccer“.
Some say that Charles Wredford-Brown was first to coin the word “soccer”, when a friend asked him to play “rugger” with some other students, to which he replied that he preferred “soccer”. So, it was this man, an English lad who went to Oxford, who invented the word, and not some bloke from America.
But as it was still referred to by many as Association Football, and then Soccer, why is now just called football? Glad you asked.
“Football” was not given the name because people kick the ball with their feet, as seems so obvious. Instead, it refers to the fact that they played on their feet, rather than on horseback. See, in the mid-19th century, the aristocrats played their sports on horseback, as they do with polo. But the middle and lower class played games on their feet. Seems far-fetched right? Well, history proves otherwise.
As “soccer” was played by the elite (such as the Oxford lad who is said to have coined “soccer”), it soon spread to the working classes, and became “football”.
I find it curious that people look down on the word “soccer” as if it is somehow inferior and not authentic or traditional. I hope at the very least I have shown that the word has history and is every bit as authentic as “football”. While it isn’t likely to become en vogue anywhere outside Canada and the US, it still has its place.
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