Why Americans Call It Soccer, Not Soccer

  • The FIFA World Cup season has arrived, so here’s a timely reminder of one of football’s age-old questions.
  • Why do Americans keep calling the sport “soccer” and not “soccer” like the British?
  • Well, if you’re English, you have only yourself to blame.

While the world’s most popular sport is called “soccer,” typically portrayed as a symbol of American ignorance, the reason we don’t call it “soccer” like the rest of the world is Britain’s fault.

The word “soccer” is a British invention that the British stopped using only about 40 years ago, according to a 2014 paper by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski.

The word “soccer” comes from the usage of the term “association football” in Britain, going back 200 years.

In the early 1800s, a number of British universities began playing ‘football’ – a medieval game – with their own versions of it, all under different rules. To standardize things across the country, these games were categorized under different organizations with different names.

A variant of the game you played with your hands became ‘rugby football’. Another variant became known as “association football” after the Football Association was formed in 1863 to promote the game, 15 years after the rules were established in Cambridge.

“Rugby football” was abbreviated “rugger” and then “rugby”. “Association football” became “soccer”.

After these two sports spread across the Atlantic, Americans came up with their own variation of the game that they simply called “football” in the early 1900s.

“Association football” became “soccer” in America, and what was called “gridiron” in Britain simply became “football” in America.

Most Britons stopped saying “football” because Americans called it that

Harry Kane and Christian Pulisic.

Harry Kane and Christian Pulisic.

Photo by Getty Images

The interesting thing here is that British still used ‘soccer’ regularly for much of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1980, “soccer” and “soccer” were “almost interchangeable” in Britain, Szymanski found.

Then everything changed (via Szymanski):

“Since 1980, the use of the word ‘soccer’ has declined in British publications, and where it is used tends to refer to an American context. This decline seems to be a reaction against the increased use in the US that seems to be associated with the peak of the NASL around 1980.”

Most Brits no longer say ‘soccer’ because of its American connotation, but British broadcaster Sky Sports still used it to brand the wildly popular TV shows ‘Soccer Saturday’ and ‘Soccer AM’.

So no, it’s not wrong to call it “soccer” if you’re an American.

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