history of the word ‘soccer’ (football)


Sketches at the international football match, Glasgow - The Graphic - 14 December 1872

This important match was played on Saturday, November 30, on the ground of the West of Scotland Cricket Club, at Partick, near Glasgow, and was the first international match played in Scotland according to the Association rules. Four matches had been previously played in London between London Scotchmen and Englishmen.

(The illustration, from Sketches at the international football match, Glasgow, by William Ralston (1848-1911), and the citation are from The Graphic (London) of 14th December 1872.)



In its broad sense of an open-air game played with an inflated ball by two sides, each of which endeavours to kick or convey the ball to the goal at the opposite end of the field, the word football is first recorded in 1409, when the City of London forbade the levy of money for the games called “foteballe” and “cokthresshyng” (= cock-thrashing).

In May 2014, Stefan Szymanski, of the Department of Kinesiology, University of Michigan, published an article titled It’s Football not Soccer, in which he wrote that in the early 19th century the game of football

became popular with the aristocratic boys of England’s leading schools—Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and so on. Each school developed its own version of the game. The desire to play games against boys from rival schools, especially while attending University (meaning Cambridge or Oxford at that time) required some standardization. The first written rules of the game were penned in Cambridge in 1848. The Football Association¹ was founded in London in 1863 to promote the game and the rules adopted were based on Cambridge rules. But standardization created conflict.
There had always been variants of the ball games which involved the use of the hands, and in the 19th century this version of the game came to be most strongly associated with Rugby School. In 1871 a group of clubs met in London to form the Rugby Football Union, to codify and develop their version of the game. From this point onwards the two versions of football were distinguished by reference to their longer titles, Rugby Football and Association Football (named after the Football Association).

In Great Britain the game played under the rules of the Football Association is called football, but in the rest of the English-speaking world the usual term is soccer, except in Ireland, where the word football is also used to refer to Association football, the word soccer being used chiefly to avoid ambiguity or differentiate explicitly between Gaelic football and Association football.

In the rest of the world, the majority of the words used for Association football are borrowings or loan formations from English football: Spanish fútbol, Portuguese futebol, French football, German Fußball, Swedish fotboll, etc.

There are other versions of football, in particular rugby (originally short for Rugby football, that is, the game of football played at Rugby School in Warwickshire), Gaelic football (a form of football originating in Ireland), Australian Rules football (official name: Australian National Football), and the version played in the USA, where it is called football.

While what the Americans call football is referred to as American football in most of the world (cf. Italian football americano and French football américain for example), the Americans refer to what most of the world calls football as soccer, so that many people assume that the latter word originated in American English. But soccer is in fact an English university slang coinage, first recorded in The Oldhallian, the journal of Old Hall School, Wellington (Shropshire), of December 1885; an anonymous Old Hall alumnus, studying at Exeter College, Oxford, wrote the following to his old schoolmates:

The ’Varsity² played Aston Villa and were beaten after a very exciting game; this was pre-eminently the most important “Socker” game played in Oxford this term; while the Rugby fifteen, which has sustained heavy losses in men since last season, have been rather unfortunate; they met their superiors in Richmond, being defeated, after a splendid game, by one goal and two tries to nil.

The noun soccer is from Assoc. (short for Association) and the suffix -er. In the same manner, rugby was shortened to ruggerThis suffix -er was used to form jocular nouns, usually by distortion of the root word. Among the earliest instances of these formations are:
Togger, a boat rowing in the Oxford college races called Torpids;
tosher (from unattached), an ‘unattached’ or non-collegiate student at a university having residential colleges;
bonner, bonfire;
brekker, breakfast;
ekker, physical exercise.

Familiar examples of informal nouns ending with this suffix include bedder, bedroom, and fresher, freshman, first-year student at university.

The North Wales Chronicle of 14th March 1891 evoked these formations:

Oxford undergraduates, especially those who are athletes, have passionate fondness for the termination “er.” The number of coined words which are made to end in the termination “er” is quite astounding, and these are absolutely unknown outside the Oxford circle. The following are fair examples, which are added to tickle the reader’s ingenuity. What does he think of:—ragger, togger, [illegible], footer, rugger, brecker, soccer, fresher, &c. The subjoined letter was picked up the other day in the High Street. It is intelligible enough to Oxford undergraduates, and may prove useful and interesting to those who are great sticklers for linguistic criterions. “Dear Fellah,—Do a brecker at the Ugger with me to-morrow morning. I have a Wugger and a Quagger coming. The first is not a bad sort of Juggins, and the other is a clinking good chappy, and awfully good at keeping the conversagger going, and all that sort of thing, dontcherknow. I have to keep a chapel first, and go to a lecker of the Subreggins at twelve. Must try and get a little ecker in, as one cannot go and listen to gassing on Arisdoodle or Theogger and all that kind of rot, don’t you know, immediately after a big brecker. We play Jaggers at rugger afterwards, and hope to give them a good pilling.—Yours truly, K.”

However, these coinages were not exclusive to Oxford. The following is from an article about Harrow School, London, titled The Harrow Boys, published in The Boy’s Own Volume of Fact, Fiction, History, and Adventure (London, Christmas 1863):

Swimming is practised in a pool known as the Duck Puddle, but which Harrovians style the “Ducker,” after a peculiar fashion of their own which prompts them to call footballfooter.”

¹ FIFA is a curious acronym from Fédération Internationale de Football Association, where Football Association is an English term and Fédération Internationale de is French and translates as International Federation of.

² ’Varsity: University

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