Fast Mash

  • According to the OED, soccer originates in 1875 at Oxford University, but borrowed from Rugby School, as university/school slang for “association football,” named for the Football Association that first codified universal rules for football in England
  • The slang is called the Oxford -er, which abridged a word an added –er; other examples include rugger for “rugby,” footer for “football,” ekker for “exercise,” and memugger for “memorial”

With 32 national teams competing on the pitch and millions of fans rooting them on, the World Cup is a truly global event, rallying behind the great, border-breaking banner that is football. Except for that pesky soccer. The term, of course, is primarily used in North American English, though has currency in South Africa and other countries, like the Philippines, where English is spoken. Its place in seems Australia mixed, if I am judge (and don’t let me be judge). But before you cry out “American exceptionalism,” you might want to know how thoroughly English the word is in origin.


It’s a well-known story. In the middle of the 19th-century, English schools and universities were playing various forms of football, each with their own “house rules.” By the time young men left their public schools for university, they were all speaking different dialects on the field, to so to speak. To address this, Cambridge developed its own official rules in 1848, and Sheffield later in the 1850s. But these rules were still school-exclusive or regional. So, in 1863, 11 representatives from different schools and clubs met at the Freemason’s Tavern in London to form the Football Association (FA). The FA drafted an official, universal set of rules. Not all clubs signed on, and so the sport we call rugby–named for Rugby School–went its own way. This FA style of football became known as, naturally, “association football” to distinguish it precisely from the other forms, such as rugby football.

But, if you’ve ever walked down the halls of a high school or a university, surely you’ve heard the young adults using their own idiosyncratic way of speaking, their own cant, their own slang. It signals, deepens, and preserves their bond, their identity, their social group. Groups centered around very structured and intensive activities–sports or music are preeminent examples–can feature especially well-developed slang or argot. This, apparently, was particularly true on the campuses of late-1800s England, such as Oxford University, home to something now known as the Oxford “-er.”

According to Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, this Oxford “-er”:

…began late in 1875 and came from Rugby School…By this process, the original word is changed and gen[erally] abridged; then ‘-er’ is added. Thus, ‘memorial’ > memugger, the ‘Radcliffe’ Camera > ‘the Radder…Occ[asionally] the word is pluralised, where the origin ends in ‘s’: as in ‘Adders,’ Addison’s Walk, ‘Jaggers,’ Jesus College. This -er has got itself into gen[erally] upper-middle-class s[lang].

So, association gets shortened to its –soc- component, and, with the addition of –er, we get soccer. It was variously pronounced as socca (a common feature for British English, known as non-rhoticity) and spelled as socker. Why soc? Well, otherwise we’d be playing assers or some such. English footballer Charles Wreford Brown is given credit for popularizing the term.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology offers some offer examples of this Oxonian “-er”: along with soccer was footer (“football”) and rugger (“rugby football”); bedder referred to the “bedroom”; ekker, “exercise”; fresher, a “freshman”; and tosher, “an unattached student at Oxford.”

Stateside, the first American football game was played–something like rugby and football, I mean soccer–in 1869, and the term “football” for it was already gaining currency. So, why did soccer stick in the States? I speculate:  For one, there was need for the term, leaving use of “football” for the gridiron descendant of the game. And perhaps class and status take the field, too. The schools where the sport was codified were elite and prestigious, and the slang used therein upper and upper-middle-class, as Partridge notes above. I suppose, then, we must think about the socioeconomic status of the British colonists whose exported the game to the colonies, but we’ll save that for another match.

m ∫ r ∫


8 thoughts on “soccer

  1. In Australia we play Australian Rules football, rugby union, rugby league and soccer. In recent years there has been a strong push by the soccer community to lay claim to the word football at the expense of the other codes who have traditionally referred to their game as football or footy. With four codes competing for the sporting fan (and dollar) rivalry is fairly intense and claiming ‘dibs’ on football has implications.
    Not being a soccer person I have several objections to the claim. One is that I grew up calling my game of choice football and I don’t see why I need to change. Secondly many people all over the world call football soccer – the most popular ‘football’ magazine in the world is called World Soccer. Thirdly, until the goalkeeper can’t use their hands, the throw-in is abolished and headers banned then it is no more exclusively ‘foot’ball than any other code.


    1. Competitive and complicated, the matches over the word “football” can be, indeed. So, does “football” still prevail as the term for what I (as American) might know as rugby and “soccer” for what I call soccer?


      1. As a generalisation the followers of each code call their favourite football and refer to the others by the more specific title. So an aussie rules(AFL) follower might say they are looking forward to the ‘footy’ this weekend and only mean AFL, similarly a rugby league fan would never refer to AFL as footy or football. The major public broadcaster(ABC) made a decision several years to refer to soccer as football and not call the other codes football, so on radio,TV and online the ABC no longer refers to soccer. The second public broadcaster is designed to be a broadcast service for the many ethnic and cultural groups in Australia and telecasts a lot of ‘football’. It’s official title of SBS is sometimes referred to disparagingly as ‘Soccer Bloody Soccer’.
        To add to the confusion there are two rugby codes, usually referred to as league and union in the states where they are the most poular sports (think American football and Canadian football).
        AFL followers generally dislike rugby as a game and don’t seem to ever fully understand the distinction between the two. Historically the rugby codes were dominant in two states (NSW & QLD), aussie rules in the rest.
        Rugby union is more popular among the wealthy, rugby league among the middle and working class.
        AFL’s popularity was not class-based.
        Soccer was much more the game of migrant populations and teams used to be identified by their ethnic support group rather than by geography. However, the new national competition banned ethnic club names and this has effectively broken down that old connection.
        These boundaries are starting to blur as competitions have become national rather than state-based and many younger people now follow some or all different codes, such people are sometimes referred to as ‘multicodal’.
        So which football team you support can be based variously on class, geography and ethnicity.
        Does that help explain why football is such a laden term in Australia?


      2. I will say I feel thoroughly assured that “football” is a complicated term in Australia!

        I say “soccer,” you say “football,” let’s call the whole thing…Something tells me nobody is calling anything off when it comes to sports.


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