It’s sometimes easy to laugh at Yanks. I remember watching a pulsating FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge in 1995 when Manchester United roared into a miraculous 5-0 lead against Chelsea only to concede three goals in the last twenty minutes, leaving them desperate to hang on for the 5-3 win. As the huge crowd drew breath at the end a lone American voice was heard saying, ‘Wow, that was some game! But hey guys, what colour were Manchester?’
However, my purpose here is not to tease our friends in the United States but to explore a strange notion that seems to have taken hold on both sides of the Atlantic, perhaps another example of how we are ‘divided by a common language’.
It has always puzzled me why it is that whenever British football teams play in the USA people get all funny about the word ‘Soccer’, as though it’s some sort of alien American imposition on our language, overthrowing our own linguistic traditions nurtured over decades. You’ll see people here rolling their eyes and making that little gesture in the air with their fingers to indicate ‘quote marks’ when using the word, as if to show how they are hip to the perfidious foreign importation .
Perhaps it’s believed that shows such as Sky TV’s Gillette Soccer Saturday are all part of the corrupting influence of Rupert Murdoch’s Evil Empire, a deliberate and unstoppable corporate Americanisation of our culture. This strange confusion has cropped up in a mild way again, now that Manchester United are currently in the middle of a highly successful US tour, taking in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and New Jersey, where they face a team of Major League Soccer (sic) Stars.
I’m not singling out anyone for criticism here, but even in a reasonably well-informed recent RoM thread there seemed hesitancy about using the dread word, with some safely placing it in the quarantine of inverted commas, ‘soccer’. The odd thing is that the uncertainty occurs in both the UK and the US, becoming a self-fulfilling belief that we Brits reject the term Soccer, a misconception accepted even by those who know that the word was coined in Victorian England. For instance, there is an American website, Soccer-Fans-Info.com, which more-or-less accurately gives the ‘Origin of the Word Soccer’,explaining that it derives from an abbreviation for Association Football, ‘Assoc’, only to spoil things by promoting the hoary old myth about the word with the bizarre statement that:
‘The English will never agree to use the term “soccer” around what they call “football” for centuries’.
As someone who has talked about soccer, played soccer, watched soccer being played since at least the 1950s, I find all this very strange, which has prompted me to investigate further.When did United start playing Soccer, and did they ever stop?
Socca, socker, soccer
Most scholarly authorities say the word was probably created within slangy upperclass English public schools and universities sometime after the establishment of the FA in 1863 and the subsequent codification of association football (in distinction from Rugby football, or ‘rugger’). The earliest reference-book citations come from the late 1880s and early 1890s, with variant spellings well into the early 20th century, including ‘socca’, ‘socker’ and only somewhat later, ‘soccer’.
I went to a minor rugby-playing public school (i.e. a private school) in the 1950s and certainly people there talked all the time of soccer and rugger. You can get a little of the flavour of how public school folk spoke in those days from a short story I found in an old annual, Raymond Glendenning’s Book of Sports for Boys , published in 1949. The tale was set in an archetypal public school and was written by the prolific ‘Frank Richards’ , the creator of Billy Bunter, the much-loved ‘Fat Owl of the Remove’ whose carryings-on I lapped up as a schoolboy myself. Born Charles Hamilton in 1876 ‘Richards’ began writing in the 1900s at a time when the word Soccer was taking hold, not just in public schools but increasingly within working class culture too, in a classic example of under-dog appropriation of upper-class practices which then feeds back into elite circles.
In this later but timeless tale by Richards about ‘footer’, ‘Perkinson’s Last Match’, the hero tells his antagonist what he thinks of him in words that capture with surprising accuracy the way public schoolboys really did speak, in a not-too-exaggerated form:
‘I’ve thought over the rot you talked in your study, and I’ve made up my mind never to play Soccer for Felgate again so long as you’re captain. I wish you joy of your footling foozlers. You don’t know as much about Soccer as a kid in the second.’
To read this story in full, purchase Red Matters from Amazon.