Here’s the Kicker- ‘Futbol’ or ‘Soccer’: How Sports Influence Language

The world seems mostly divided on the phrase that denotes a single sport, even to the point of argument among some fans (enough to warrant a RED CARD). To most North Americans, it’s soccer. To most of Europe, it’s football or a similar etymology. Most of the world follows one of these two phonetic variances with interesting exceptions such as the Italian calcio, the Croatian nogomet, and the Malay bola sepak. To make sense of the ‘football’ vs ‘soccer’ we have to look at the etymology (history of a word) and history of the game. In doing so we see how sports, a component of culture, impacts language.

soccer world map

“Soccer” vs. “Football” Around the Globe (Image from Reddit’s r/soccer)

“Football”, “Fútbol”, “Futebol”

Where the term “football” comes from, as well its direct cognates and translations, should be fairly obvious. Effectively, the game is named for being the ball game played with the feet. Most of the time, language is pretty direct and the logic behind naming conventions is quite obvious for most contrived (artificial or invented) phrases.  

Even our examples of the variants that don’t directly come from the phrase “football” denote a how the game is played:

  • calcio, from Italian, comes from the word calciare, meaning “to kick”

  • nogomet(но̏гоме̄т, nȍgomēt) in Croatian comes from the words “nòga” meaning “leg” and “mètati” meaning “to place”

  • bola sepak from Malay, meaning “kick ball”.  

“Rugger” or “Soccer”

The word that stands out as being radically different from these other etymologies is “soccer”. Though you may guess that “soccer” could be from the slang “sock” as in to hit with extreme force, you may be surprised that it has nothing to do with the actions in the game like the other phrases central to the name. Soccer is the derivation of the phrase that was originally used to distinguish what Americans today call Soccerfrom American Football which comes from the sport Rugby. Soccer comes from “soc” an abbreviation of “Association” referring to “Association Football” which had very strict rules- the game was to be played predominantly without the use of one’s hands.

As Rugby was gaining popularity at the time, soccer was used as a slang to stand in for these association rules. Rugby’s full name is Rugby Football, named for the school at which this derivation of the rules of Association Football beganbut like Soccer, had the slang “Rugger”. Essentially, you could be a young person in 19th century Britain , have your friends say they are playing football and you might ask, “Are we playing Rugger or Soccer?” These were terms simply to distinguish a variant (an alternative set of rules). Eventually the word “soccer” was adopted by Americans, and British fans of Football abandoned the term for becoming “too American.” (Why Americans Call Soccer “Soccer” )

You might be wondering where American Football comes into play in all of this. In the late 19th century, American Football was created based on the rules of both Rugby Football and Association Football. As it was based on the rules of these two forms of Football, clearly more closely resembling Rugby, the name Football stuck due to its history. Despite the frequent displeasure of fans of each of these games, at the time of their creation, Rugby and American Football were much more similar games. (Birth of Pro Football


Therein lies the central issue, language and lifestyles change and evolve at a different pace. This concept makes frequent appearances in language. For instance, have you ever noticed that you may use the phrase “rewind” to refer to the act of going backwards in a YouTube video? Unless you grew up with VHS tapes, that word may not make much sense. Just as calling American Football, “Football” doesn’t make sense to many people; however the word’s origin will help explain its how it is used currently.

Translation hangs on the ability to distinguish not only words, but meaning. If you were to Google Football, you may see three listings, by now, all of which you’ll be familiar with;American Football, Association Football, and Rugby Football. However, if the word “football” by itself is to be translated into another language, to understand the meaning in both the source and target language is pivotal. Heaven forbid, a translator has to translate the phrase, “Football is the best sport in the world,” they may accidentally offend someone.


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