The British call it football. The French do, too. The Spanish and Portuguese and their linguistic adherents call it fútbol or futebol. Yet here in the United States, we call it soccer – and you don’t have to look far to find a sneering fan who insists our language is all wrong.
Why the difference, and does it even matter?
Anyone who insists that “soccer” is a vulgar Americanism has their facts wrong. The word “soccer” was coined at the Rugby School, in Warwickshire, England, where, as you have probably guessed, the game of rugby was invented. Students there took “association football” — the longer name for the game — shortened “association” to “assoc” and stuck an -er on the end of it.
The point was to distinguish soccer from another form of football, just as we do in the United States today. For them it was rugby, for us it’s “gridiron” football. This is why the term “soccer” is popular in other Commonwealth countries as well. Canada, Australia and South Africa all use the term, to draw a distinction between it and other games that are called “football.”
“Soccer” isn’t the only term that’s British in origin and gets occasionally taken to be a base Americanism. “Game” is a far older term than “match.” The same is true for “field” versus “pitch.” And at any rate, all four are very old English words. Yet you’ll still find people who insist that a football match must be played on a pitch, rather than a soccer game being played on a field.
There is a long tradition of the British disdaining “Americanisms” that are actually British in origin. In his book “The Mother Tongue,” author Bill Bryson gives a rundown, dating back to such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who hated the word “talented” even though it was first used in England in 1422.
Passion for the language of the sport is a political matter, not a lexical one. If I write about soccer games rather than football matches, about uniforms rather than kits, or league standings instead of league tables, it’s perfectly clear what I mean and what I’m trying to convey – even to someone in an English pub. Those who criticize me for not using the “proper” terminology are making a point about what they feel is the “proper” version of soccer.
Fans from other countries often condescend to fans in the United States, as if we Americans couldn’t possibly understand the varied mysteries of football or fútbol or futebol. We’re usually lumped in with China as countries that have more money than soccer knowledge. Condescension about language is just part of that larger condescension, and at the heart of all that is fear.
England spread the English language around the world with conquest, but it was the United States that turned English into the closest thing there is to a global language. When it comes to soccer, the fear is that American (and Chinese) money will eventually swamp the historical, European roots of the game. It seems a long way off.
Then again, so did the rise of American English to that talented poet Coleridge.
• The North Carolina Courage concluded the most dominant season in American pro soccer history in the only way that made sense, defeating Portland 3-0 to claim the National Women’s Soccer League championship. The franchise, formerly the Western New York Flash, has now won two of the past three championships, as well as two consecutive NWSL Shields (regular-season titles). We have a dynasty on our hands.
• Houston won the U.S. Open Cup this week, defeating Philadelphia to win the oldest trophy in American soccer. Not that the people of Houston, who only lightly populated the stadium, seemed to have been informed. U.S. Soccer needs to reconsider how the knockout tournament is structured because it’s clear that it’s not getting the attention that it deserves.
• I was impressed by the coordinated fan protests at German league games this week. The fans stayed silent for 20 minutes to protest the scheduling of games at inconvenient times for those who watch the games in person — good for broadcasters but bad for fans. It was a reminder that clubs provide the soccer, but fans provide the atmosphere. The combination of both is what makes broadcasters want to show the games.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Liverpool at Chelsea, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Liverpool has won all six of its league games this year. Chelsea is similarly undefeated, albeit with one draw included. This portends to be one of the biggest games of the season in England for either team’s title ambitions. Oddly, the teams played in midweek, in the League Cup; Chelsea won 2-1.
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org