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Actually, Manchester United have been playing ‘socker’ since at least 1902

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.




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61 Comments

  1. swede says:

    Why is it spelt “socker” which means sugar in swedish in the headline?

  2. smartalex says:

    Love then marriage. Go to get her like a hand, some carriage.
    Ask for local entry, and they’ll say it’s non-consentry,
    If you can’t have one, choose the other.

  3. RxDevil says:

    There were already a ton of posts, so apologies if this was already mentioned…

    I’ve been on the frontlines of this argument for years now, being a Yank that plays footie (I use that word to avoid confusion) whilst most of my colleagues seem to only enjoy sports that involve stopping the play after every 10-20 seconds or so. My favorite shirt is one that depicts a cartoon of the “pigskin” with the word “Throwball” underneath… in fact, I recall a few years ago having a long conversation where we concluded that the most accurate term for a given sport would be one that is comprised of words that are related to the sport itself: e.g., if you use only your feet to move around a ball-shaped object, you should call that game “foot-ball;” or, if the game requires putting such a ball-shaped object into a basket-like target, you might call that sport “basket-ball;” you hit a ball and then run around a set of bases…”base-ball” etc., etc., etc. On this rationale, we devised a term that was more appropriate for the American sport:

    “Hand-Egg.”

    Alas, it hasn’t quite caught on yet.

    What most of my compatriots don’t realize is that the reason they call their sport “football” is because it originated from the same sport… back when football first became popular in the UK there was a split between those that wanted to use their hands and those that didn’t. The former group eventually compromised and re-named their sport “rugby,” but before that happened their version was introduced to some Ivy League schoolboys…and the name football stuck.

    Well, let’s just say that American football players don’t like being told that their favo(u)rite past-time isn’t actually as “American” as they think it is ^_~

  4. Buddy says:

    I remember the Soccer 80s sticker mags from when i was a kid. The word was new to me then and was probably the only time i came across it up until USA took an interest in the sport.

    If it’s slang, surely it shouldn’t be used formally. As in you don’t get a rugger world cup, no matter what country it’s in. It’s fine to call football footy, soccer, togger, or any other nickname when used casually. I think americans spoil the word by using it as a direct replacement for the word they actually mean.

  5. ScholesEvilTwin says:

    Dont recall seeing many english clubs with the words “Soccer Club” after their name…..they generally all have “Football Club”

  6. Jonathan says:

    I can relate 100% to RedSeattle (I’m from Vancouver BC myself). When it comes down to it the North American use of the term “football” is stupid; but the sport is so popular so it’s nothing but a losing battle and a waste of time to try and reclaim “football” for “soccer”. As the article points out, “soccer” has a history about as long as the sport itself so it’s a perfectly acceptable and honourable alternative. Long story short: people on either side of the Atlantic just need to live with it.

    *For the record, “American” Football is a great sport – just a poor name.

  7. EastStandManc says:

    Excellent article Giles.

    I was already aware of the word’s earlier usage but your well-researched article has given me a more profound sense of its place within the sport’s nascency. Your work is much appreciated.

    I still prefer ‘football’, though :-) .

  8. Belgo-Irish Red says:

    Hats off to Giles for the extensive research and interesting post!
    In Ireland, usage of “soccer” is also pretty common, so as not to get confused with (Gaelic) football.
    On a side note, love reading quotes from old newspaper articles, how the English language has changed since!

  9. swede says:

    Giles failed to realise american influence on UK during the wars. I do not trust his research and I question it and see it as a flirt with american fans during our tour there and a way to help the club make more money on e fairly new market.
    Just because a magazine used the word soccer does not mean it was widespread or used daily and maybe it was americans who were behind it as many stayed on after wars and married british women.
    The whole thing about soccer versus football has been a big england versus usa thing and just banter mainly. There always turns up this touchy moron that has to nail things home as if rest of people were idiots not knowing things.
    The word that is used and has been used is football at least in Europe and the irish with their american links has to be excused here because their culture did change a lot with the potato famine and the american settlers from ireland. It must be stated that football is the most political sport in the world and that in the past few years politics is what runs the game and makes it vibrant on and off the park.
    I guess Giles will write a big thing about the holocaust as well now as he must believe that those denying it ever happening really believe so in their heart when it is all a way to put two fingers up against the establishment. University victims never made the world brighter and they just told us the obvious.

  10. Giles Oakley says:

    One small correction. The quote relating to the 1908 Charity Shield (to be precise the Replay) comes from page 100, not page 20 of Thomas Maw’s book. Sorry.

  11. Giles Oakley says:

    Another small correction:

    The George Best’s Soccer Annual series ran from 1968 t0 1972, not 1971, ending with Annual No.5.

    Sorry again.

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