This is the introduction to a new book by Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck. The book is available on paper or kindle here.
“It’s Football, not Soccer”: A Strange Case of Linguistic Exile
This is a book about what looks, on the surface, like a pointless debate – a debate so pointless that its very pointlessness becomes a source of fascination. It is a debate which should have been settled long ago, but which instead continues, on a low burn, day after day, only to flare up into a great big dumpster fire of internet rage every four years when the World Cup, earth’s most popular athletic contest, rolls around.
The debate’s ritual opening salvo consists of four words: “It’s football, not soccer.” From there, it moves into territory that has become deeply familiar to all who play: the global preference for the word football, the intolerable nature of the word soccer, the equally intolerable nature of US sports and of US citizens, the non-ball-ness and the non-foot-ness of American football.
Those points are countered at times with apologetic explanations or modest appeals to linguistic diversity, but also, and more frequently, by detailed disquisitions on the unbearable dullness of the world’s most popular game, the deficient masculinity of soccer players in particular and Englishmen in general, and the unquestionable superiority of American sports.
While this game is played predominantly by Brits and US-Americans, the global community chimes in as well, usually siding with the Brits, but rarely if ever attacking the Irish, Australians, South-Africans, or Canadians, all of whom also call the beautiful game soccer. This shouting match is between America and the rest of the world, or rather those who declare themselves to speak for the rest of the world.
The facts have been laid out many times: football is the name of a number of team games that loosely resemble each other. The full name of the game either called football or soccer is “association football,” which was shortened to soccer by posh English students towards the end of the 19th century. Both soccer and football were used interchangeably in the UK well into the 1970s, and soccer remains either the preferred term or a common one in all countries where other codes of football are more popular.
US-English and UK-English have different words for a number of things: pudding/dessert, suspenders/braces, boot/trunk, jumper/sweater, football/soccer. None of these facts are remotely controversial, and anybody with access to a search engine could easily ascertain them. Reasonable people would, one assumes, accept that soccer is the American (and Irish, Australian, Canadian, South-African…) word for association football, that the word is British in origin, that Americans will likely continue to use it, and that everybody knows what they mean when they do so. But neither internet discussions nor sports debates are hospitable territory for reasonable people, and we are supremely confident in predicting another game of Football vs Soccer alongside all the other matches that will constitute the FIFA World Cup of 2018.
While the facts of the matter are clear, the persistence of the debate and the violent passion that fuels it have remained a mystery. How did a British word become an outcast in its country of origin? This, in itself, is extraordinary. We have consulted a number of linguists, but none could point us to a similar case of linguistic exile. To be sure, words change meaning all the time, previously perfectly acceptable words become taboo, taboo words become acceptable, common ones fall out of use, rare ones become common. But to our knowledge, there is no other English word that has been declared foreign by the English themselves, reviled as an insult, banned from their shores, struck from collective memory. It is a bizarre phenomenon, and well-worth exploring for what it can tell us about transatlantic relations, sports globalization and its discontents, the psychology of fans, and the way we understand or fail to understand how language works.
This book will lay out the contours of the debate, delve into the history of the word football and the emergence of the word soccer, explore some 20th century data on the distribution of the two words, tell you about all the words the world actually uses to describe the game, give you a glimpse of soccer’s convoluted fate in Australia, and try to make sense of it all.
Because the United States get most of the grief in this debate, we decided to stick with American spelling, as a small token of restitution.