U.S. vs. UK: Where Does “Soccer” Come From?

Photo: US Team World CupThe second day of 2010 World Cup action heats up as Team USA takes on England today, Saturday, June 12th, at 8:30 p.m. local time at the Royal Bafoking Stadium in Rustenburg. In the U.S., ABC will begin its coverage of the game at 1:30 p.m. EST and kickoff’s at 2:30 p.m. EST.

This is the first official match up between the “cousins” since the 1-0 U.S. defeat of Team England during the 1950 World Cup in Brazil; a game many consider the greatest upset in World Cup history and possibly the U.S. team’s greatest victory. Sixty years ago, when the U.S. and British media finally got around to reporting the game, many considered the news of the 1-0 U.S. win to be a typo.

In anticipation of today’s big game (and as people who work with words, we couldn’t resist), we thought we’d compare the rivals linguistically. British and U.S. English diverge on several levels, in the realms of pronunciation, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Keeping things light, we wondered about a key difference in vocabulary between the two nations that, given our topic, is quite relevant: Why do the British call the “world’s game” football while Americans call it “soccer”?

Find out after the jump.

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After some digging, I’m happy to report the following: Apparently American’s word for football is a shortened version of Assoccer, an abbreviation of “Association Football,” the term given the game as it was played at elite British boys’ schools in the 1860s. “Assoccer” became “soccer”

and the name somewhat stuck as it served to distinguish it from rugby-rules football.

As players, coaches, sailors, and the enthusiastic exported the game around the world courtesy of the British Empire, local languages appropriated “football” as a loan word. For example, the Spanish fútbol doesn’t literally combine the Spanish words for “foot” and “ball” but is an approximation of the British word for the ever-popular game. The game came to U.S. shores in the late 19th century and was called “football” in the U.S. until after World War II when the increasing popularity of the National Football League (NFL) prompted a change in name. Where English is a country’s first language, “football” often refers to the most popular form of football in that country. Only three English-speaking FIFA countries refer to the game as “soccer”: the U.S., Samoa, and Canada.

No matter what you call it, tune in to the big game and if you’re in D.C.

on Saturday, stop by DuPont Circle where all three of the day’s games will be screened for the public by Soccer in the Circle, who hopes to raise enough money to show the July 11th finals as well.

For more on the U.S. and UK, visit the Travel and Cultures section of the Nat Geo website where you’ll find quizzes, photo galleries, and much more. Or, to get psyched for the World Cup, re-read the June 2006 National Geographic Magazine

feature story on soccer, “The World’s Game”.

Photo: U.S. Soccer


  1. Paul
    August 25, 2010, 1:07 pm

    usa suck the balls

  2. Oman
    June 14, 2010, 1:58 pm

    Through out the Arab world the game is an obsession and in Arabish , yes it is ‘football ‘
    but rather that the correct كرة القدم (foot ball = ‘Korat al qadm’) its name has been stripped down to كووورة ‘kooora ‘ – so ball it is

  3. The Word Guy
    June 13, 2010, 10:11 am

    Games involving the kicking around of balls or bladders can be traced back to the Greeks and presumably beyond, but 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.

  4. Caitlin @ Roaming Tales
    June 12, 2010, 1:25 pm

    >>Only three English-speaking FIFA countries refer to the game as “soccer”: the U.S., Samoa, and Canada.
    Australia and New Zealand refer to it as soccer. I don’t know about NZ but Australia is a FIFA country (and playing in this World Cup). Poor us – our opening game is against Germany!
    @TAH I lived in London for five years and I never got the impression that people thought soccer was an Americanism. It was just a word used by people who didn’t really follow the sport, which might happen to include Americans. I don’t think anyone thought that Americans invented the word.

  5. TAH
    June 12, 2010, 1:17 pm

    Just a thought – you missed an important point that soccer was still used as late as 30 years ago in England as an occasional synonym for football. I remember kids sometimes saying “D’ya fancy a game of soccer?” from that time. There was also a regional highlights programme called Star Soccer 1968-1981. “Soccer” was just a nickname and has only in the last generation become thought to be an Americanism.
    There is still a UK-based magazine called “World Soccer”. It is interesting how having various chips on shoulders fly in the face of basic, and very easy to find, facts.

  6. Peter
    June 12, 2010, 11:06 am

    It’s also long known as soccer in South Africa, where English is an official and most commonly used language. Witness Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, where yesterday’s World Cup opener was played.