Why Do Americans Call Football ‘Soccer’?

For an American fan of the game we know as Association Football it is perfectly normal to refer to the game as ‘soccer’. For an English football fan to hear that word is something akin to sacrilege. It grates on the ears to hear the word, let alone know that an entire nation uses it.

But what does it mean? Where did it come from? And why do the Americans use it? Hopefully we’ll be able to answer one or two of those questions in this section of the website. Or not. Either way, we’ll have fun trying…

American Football, Rugger and Soccer

By Major League Soccer LLC (Extracted from MLS 20th Season Overview Brochure) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the obvious reasons why football needed a new name when it crossed the atlantic was the proliferation of other games known by the same name. Though association football was actually played in America before the sport more commonly known in the UK as American Football, the latter became significantly more popular in the States.

Because of that that game took on the mantle of ‘football’, meaning that the English variant on the game needed to be given a different name. Ironically, despite the fact that British people tend to immensely dislike the use of the word ‘soccer’, it actually came from the United Kingdom.

In England there were two games being played with the name ‘football’ in their title. The game we now know as football developed out of the world of rugby football, with different associations playing different rules of games that were very similar. Some continued to play rugby and others played the new game that was association football.

In 1863 the Football Association of London was established and confirmed the Laws Of The Game for football. This meant that there was likely to be confusion in England between rugby football and association football. Consequently, rugby football started to be called ‘rugger’ and association football became ‘soccer’, from the word ‘association’.

Why Do Americans Use Soccer?

Virtually everywhere else in the world calls football ‘football’, at least in their own language. In Spain it is ‘fútbol’. In Germany it is ‘fußball’. The Icelandic refer to it as ‘fótbolta’. The Dutch call it ‘voetbal’. In Albania it is ‘futboll’. In France and, of course, the UK it is simply ‘football’.

It is only really countries that use Americanised English that refer to the world’s most popular sport as ‘soccer’. But why? The answer, really, comes down to popularity.

When American Football gained in popularity across the United States it was clear that it couldn’t be called ‘American Football’. After all, it was America’s number one game so naming it after the country in order to call a different, significantly less popular game ‘football’ really made no sense. Equally, gridiron wasn’t as clear an explanation as to what the game was about as ‘football’ was, so it couldn’t be called that either.

Other Names For Football

Football Around the World
Popularity of Football around the world - By User:Johan Elisson. [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It isn’t only the Americans who fail to call the game ‘football’. The Italians call is ‘calcio’, which comes from the Italian word ‘calciare’, meaning ’to kick’. That is the best known variation of the word other than different types of use of the word ‘soccer’.

In South Africa, for example, the word ‘soccer’ is interchangeable with the word ‘sokker’. In Japan they use both ‘sakkä’ and ‘futtobōru’, meaning soccer and football respectively.

It’s interesting to note that the British used the word ‘soccer’ regularly for the majority of the 20th century. Indeed, ‘soccer’ and football’ were interchangeable words in the period between 1960 and the 1980s. Its usage has slowly dissipated since it was used in increasing amounts in America, particularly when the North American Soccer League was at its zenith in about 1980.

When Did Soccer Become An ‘Americanism’?

The more that the word was used in the United States the less that the British were happy to use it. Call it snobbery, call it arrogance, call it whatever you want. The reality is that the British, more specifically the English, didn’t enjoy using the word that their American cousins were using with such regularity.

Because of that it has now become almost distasteful to use the word in the UK and when it is used the user invariable endures a barrage of mockery. It is now very much an American word that is used to describe football and no English person would be keen to use it.

What’s worth remembering, though, is that the English invented it. The short-form of ‘association football’ became ‘assoc’ which in turn became ‘soccer’. So if you use it in front of someone from the UK and they tell you that it’s not the right word, be sure to let them know that however much they may not be fond of it, ‘soccer’ has actually been an English term all along.