soccer /’sɒkə/

The much-anticipated – and some might say hyped – World Cup match between the US and England was always, from the English perspective, a “no-win” event. After all, in the grand scheme of things, England’s winning would be seen as expected. Anything other than a win would be viewed from the American perspective as a win, where win is defined as “not losing to the Brits.” So when the match ended up as a 1-1 draw, there was the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth in pubs across the “green and pleasant land,” while US commentators had a hard time avoiding smugness – and by “holding back” I mean “not holding back.”

US vs. England 2010

The special relationship between the US and the UK has always been less of the English “Greeks” to the American “Romans” but independent child to rapidly aging parents. Every year on the 4th of July my American colleagues feel it necessary to remind me how they “whooped British asses” and created a better nation, while I feel obliged to remind them that many of those actually fighting for independence were British and that a significant number of folks living in the UK were also for US independence. There has always been something of an anti-English element in America, which is being sorely tested at this moment in time with the devastating oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit of which being BP – British Petroleum. Never mind that BP is an international company, with a sizable number of American investors, American employees, American managers, and American business relationships. As of 2009,  40 per cent of BP’s shares were owned in Britain, with a comparable 39 per cent owned in the US. It also has six British directors and six American, and employs 22,000 Americans against only 10,000 Britons.[1]

BP: Bringing Pain - Burning Petroleum

Nope, the big thing here is that the word British is right up there, allowing for the upsurge of latent anti-English feelings to resurface. The truth is that is doesn’t matter if the oil company responsible is British, American, Saudi Arabian, or Elvish; oil is spewing out into the sea and the Blame Game can wait until after a solution has been found.

So what better time to take on the Old Country via through the international medium of soccer -or as the rest of the world calls it, football. It’s also an opportunity to whip out the cudgels to fight on that other Anglo-American battleground – the English Language. Hardly a day goes by in the world without someone in the UK bemoaning the devastating effect those ugly Americanisms are having on the purity of English, while/whilst the US literati (an oxymoron for some little Englanders) use the same argument to promote the vitality and vivacity of the New Linguistic World order, with American English now being seen as the true heir to the language, with the fuddy-duddy whinging poms being stuck in a time warp, never having been able to get over the loss of the Empire.

It’s this on-going rivalry that fuels the squabbling over the word soccer, used primarily by Americans to describe a game played by the rest of the world in a different manner to their own game called football. But is the US predilection to use soccer in opposition to everyone else just another show of imperialism or a historical linguistic expedient? To understand this, we first have to forget the word soccer and go back to football.

Typical English Football Team

The ancient Greeks were not averse to a spot of knocking a ball around as a form of exercise and entertainment. The game, ἐπίσκυρος, was first mentioned in the writings of Antiphanes, and involved two teams of 12 players with a ball. The word ἐπίσκυρος is itself a variation on ἐπίκοινος, which Liddell and Scott translate as “common to many,” i.e. the ball is common to all the players.

Socrates Centre Forward

In the 2nd century AD, the writer Pollux described the game as follows:

This is played by teams of equal numbers standing opposite one another. They mark out a line between them with stone chips; this is the skuros on which the ball is placed. They then mark out two lines, one behind each team. The team which secures possession of the ball throws it over their opponents who then try to get hold of the ball and throw it back, until one side pushes the other over the line behind them. The game might be called a Ball Battle.

The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, the word being a romanization of the Greek ἁρπαστόν, from the word ἁρπάζω, which means “to grab,” which suggests some handling of the ball was expected.

The specific word football kicked off in English way back in 1424 when it appeared in a legal document issued by King James I of Scotland – not to be confused with King James I of Cleveland, OH, who also goes under the name of basketball player LeBron James. The act itself appears to have come about because too many wastrels were spending time playing the game instead of doing things the King felt more productive, so the edict was issued that “the King forbids that any man play at the ‘fut bal’ under payne of fines.” King Edward II also issued a ban, this time under “pain of imprisonment” – clearer he felt a little more strongly about it.

As might be expected with such an old game, over time, many variations on a theme began to appear, giving rise to different types of football. Thus is became necessary to distinguish the various forms by using some type of adjective to mark the specific set of rules being used. In England, for example, a particular version was developed and played at a school in the town of Rugby (thought to derive from Anglo-Saxon hruch burh = rook’s fortress, with rook referring either to the bird or a person’s name) and thus being designated Rugby football. In Ireland, they play Gaelic football, which is, in turn different from Australian rules football.

Rugby School. Warwickshire

In 1863, the newly formed Football Association (or FA) codified a set of rules that became the standard for Association Football, which involved the kicking of a round ball with only a goal-keeper being allowed to physically handle the ball. At around the same time, colleges in the US were playing a form of football that was more similar to Rugby football, where holding an oval-shaped ball and running with it was the main activity. This was referred to as collegiate football, the precursor the the run-of-the-century professional or grid-iron football.

Typical American Football Team

Now here’s where it gets interesting. In the UK, the phrase “association football” followed the path of simplification by shortening the adjective to soccer, similar to the way in which rugby football had become rugger. In 1889, the English poet and writer Ernest Dowson’s Letters was published, in which he wrote, “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” The misspelling may, in fact, be due to the word not actually having a standard form at that point.

Dowson, as an aside, was one of those tragic figures who had a short life and dead at the age of 32 due to chronic alcoholism. When he was 23, he fell in love with an 11-year-old, Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurateur. Although nothing came of this infatuation, her marriage in 1897 to one of her father’s waiters became the third element of a tragic trifecta that included the suicide of his father by an overdose of chloral hydrate in 1894, and the suicide of his mother by hanging in 1895. Dowson left for France saying, “I have no lungs left to speak of, an apology for a liver, and a broken heart.” Thus began his slow decline into alcoholism and death back in England in 1900.

Ernest Dowson 1867-1900

In the US, the adjective was dropped rather than shortened and references to collegiate or grid-iron football simply fell back to football alone. An article in the New York Herald of November 1881 said that, “A splendid game of football was played yesterday at the Polo Grounds between… Harvard and Princeton.”

But now for the flip-flop.

The English-originated word soccer was primarily used by the then upper classes, when public school chappies would play rugger, soccer, and cricket, and export them across the empire where the natives would learn to play them and ultimately beat the English in all of them! But the working classes of the 19th and 20th century still played common or garden football, a much more logical name for a game that involved kicking a ball with your foot. So gradually, the popular word for the game in England became football and not soccer.

Meanwhile, on the ranch, the official body for the game of soccer as played in the UK was created in 1913 as the United States of America Foot Ball Association, and became one of the early members of the international body that overseas the World Cup, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). It wasn’t until 1945 that it became the United States Soccer Football Association (and notice how the word association is used along with the word derived from association in the first place!) Then, the flip ultimately flopped in 1974 as the word football was dropped altogether to leave the United States Soccer Federation. With football now firmly associated with American football, using soccer served to make the distinction between the two ball games.

Which brings us back to June 2010, with the Americans using the British English word soccer to refer to… well… soccer! Rather than being some sort of snub to the sons and daughters of Mad King George, it seems that the heirs to the Revolution are preserving a word coined by the 19th century’s Empire Builders.  It turns out, therefore, that perhaps in certain respects, the Americans are actually preserving the English language.

Bet we don’t see a letter to the UK’s Daily Telegraph about THAT analysis!

[1] Source: UK Times newspaper article, June 10, 2010: Boris Johnson attacks America’s ‘anti-British’ rhetoric on BP.

Postscript: Germany vs. Greece


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Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

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