Q: I’m already tired of soccer, and the World Cup has barely started! But I’m never tired of etymology, so here’s my question. Where did the term “soccer” come from, and why do Europeans call it “football”?
A: As everybody knows by now, the game that North Americans call “soccer” is known as “football” (or a local variation on this) in most other countries.
Sports fans in England generally don’t use the word “soccer.” But interestingly, the word originated in England more than a century ago as a slang term for the older “football.” Here’s the story.
In late 19th-century England, students at the Rugby School in Warwickshire began using the suffix “-er” to form slang words. The practice spread to other public schools, such as Harrow, and on to Oxford University.
Typically, an existing noun would be clipped and “-er” attached to the end.
Among early examples in the Oxford English Dictionary are “footer” (for football, 1863), “ekker” (exercise, 1891), “brekker” (breakfast, 1889), “bonner” (bonfire, 1898), and “cupper” (intercollegiate cup match, 1900). Perhaps more familiar to Americans is the later example “bed-sitter” (1927, short for “bed-sitting-room”).
“Soccer” was one of these schoolboy formations. It was a slang term for association football—that is, football played according to the rules of the Football Association. In this case, the “-er” suffix was combined with a clipped form of “Assoc.”
As the OED explains, “soccer” (in early use sometimes spelled “socca” or “socker”) is derived from “Assoc., short for Association.”
The dictionary’s earliest published example comes from a letter by the poet and fiction writer Ernest Dowson, written in 1889, a year after he left Oxford: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” Note the apostrophe, signifying an abbreviation.
[Update, June 22, 2014: Fred Shapiro, editor of the wonderful Yale Book of Quotations, has informed us of earlier sightings. He found “soccer” in an 1888 issue of Oxford Magazine, and Evan Kirshenbaum discovered even older examples in boarding-school publications—“socker” in the Oldhallian (1885) and “soccer” in the Carthusian (1886).]
In Britain, the slang term “soccer” never replaced the original word, “football,” which has been in English use since the early 1400s for various games involving people kicking balls around on a field.
The conventions of the modern game of English “football” weren’t standardized until 1863, when the Football Association drew up its rules.
After that, there was a differentiation in English sports between “association football” and “rugby football” (nicknamed “rugger”), the variety of football played at Rugby.
So “soccer” and “rugger” originated as slang names for the two varieties of English football.
Today, North Americans use the former slang term “soccer” to differentiate their football from the rest of the world’s. In fact, the United States Soccer Federation was formerly called the US Football Association.
Although most of the world is watching “football” when cheering teams at the World Cup, Americans aren’t the only ones watching “soccer.” Australians use the term to differentiate the sport from Australian Rules Football (or “Footy”), a kind of mix between soccer and rugby.
So what does the world at large call North American “football”? Many English speakers outside North America use the terms “gridiron” or “grid.”
The OED has a couple of examples, including this one from Terry McLean’s book Kings of Rugby: The British Lions’ 1959 tour of New Zealand: “American, or gridiron, football.”
This later citation is from Charles Drummond’s novel Death and the Leaping Ladies (1968): “You can’t just walk into a team like you can, say, in gridiron or soccer.”
While we’re at it, the word “gridiron” got its start in the late 13th century as the name of a cooking apparatus, and is probably related to the earlier word “griddle.” It consists of bars made of made of iron or other metal, and supported on legs for cooking over a fire.
Later, “gridiron” was used for things of a similar pattern, like a grating or grill or—in the 19th century—the markings on a sports field.
The OED cites this example from an 1896 issue of the Daily News in London: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.”