When Did We Start Calling ‘Football’ ‘Soccer’?

“Soccer” isn’t an Americanism at all—it’s a British word


The 2014 Brazil World Cup, likely to be the "most watched sporting event ever," is currently taking the world by storm. Though soccer has long been the world's favorite sport, its popularity has been surging in America over the past few decades, particularly among big-city literati, says the New York Times. These new fans often eschew the word "soccer" as a crass Americanism and adopt the name "football" for their new favorite sport.

This, argues the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Clegg, who grew up "as a soccer fan in England," is nothing but an elaborate affectation:

I don't begrudge fans here who have only recently awakened to the charms of what the rest of the world has long known as the beautiful game. Welcome to the party!

The problem is your soccer obsessives. … They refer to the sport as "fútbol," hold long conversations about the finer points of the 4-4-2 formation and proudly drape team scarves around their necks even when the temperature outside is touching 90 degrees.

Clegg would prefer that American fans stick to the tried-and-true American name for the game—"soccer." There's only one problem with that argument: according to Uri Friedman writing for the Atlantic, the word “soccer” is no less British than the word "football."

Brits coined the term soccer in the late 1800s to refer to Association Football, the sport we now know as soccer/football. "Soccer" was picked as a way to differentiate from another kind of football—Rugby Football. For a similar reason, "soccer" became the favored term in America, a way to differentiate against Gridiron Football.

For years both "soccer" and "football" were used interchangeably in England—football was the favored term, though "soccer" picked up use after World War II.

In the end, British fans gravitated to the term "football" for the same reason Clegg is now dissuading new fan from donning scarves and saying "pitch" instead of "field"—they wanted to distinguish themselves from Americans. As the sport picked up popularity in the States in the 1980s, says Friedman, there was a backlash in England, and "soccer" dropped out of use.

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