What’s up with all those letters we don’t say in “Leicester”?

Against all odds, the Leicester City Football Club clinched England’s Premier League title on Monday. Far and wide, millions of lovers of football – and Cinderella stories – cheered the unlikely champions. And as many, perhaps, learned how to pronounce the name of this club and city. Leicester, in spite of its extra characters, sounds like the name Lester, which is derived, in fact, from this very Leicester.

Why do we pronounce Leicester like “Lester”? Or, for my readers not interested in sports, Gloucester like “Gloster”? (I can still feel my nerdy shame when an English teacher corrected my mispronunciation of this King Lear character.) Oxford English Dictionary offers: “The history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure; the written form is perhaps of French or medieval Latin origin.” Economy, generally speaking, is ultimately behind the pronunciation, historical inertia behind the spelling, I imagine.

While we can’t explain for certain the peculiar pronunciation of –cester, we can explain where it comes from.

Cester: phonetic cheshire cats and linguistic underdogs 

From roughly 40 to 400 AD, Rome ruled much of Great Britain. Over 1500 years later, its footprint still shows. Ancient Roman military fortifications, for example, have endured not only in their physical remains, but in place names as well. Latin called these sites castra, a plural noun meaning a “camp,” which we might liken to military bases today.

A diminutive form of castra, castellum, a kind of “fort,” gives English castle. The ultimate origin of Latin’s castrum is unclear, though many connect it to castrate via a root meaning, yep, “to cut off.” The surname Castro, as in Fidel, is a notable Spanish cognate, as is alcazar,  from an Arabic rendering  of castrumal-qasr 

Old English borrowed Latin’s castra as ceaster. (Old Welsh did as cair.) Anglo-Saxon records show ceaster in combination with original Celtic names for tribes and topography. As early as the 10th century, Leicester, for instance, is recorded as Ligora-ceastre; the first element preserves either the Celtic name of the tribe or for the river there when the Romans marched in around 47 A.D.

For a time, ceaster, pronounced more like its now-obsolete descendant, chester, stood on its own word as a word “town,” especially a former Roman-occupied castra. But English largely remembers ceaster as a toponymic suffix, variously adapted as -caster (Lancaster), –chester (Manchester, ), –cester (Leicester), and in other place names like Exeter and Cheshire. Each of these former Roman encampments, again, likely preserve Celtic roots in their first elements: Lancaster may have meant “camp on the Lune River”; Manchester, “on the breast-like hill”; Exeter, “on the Exe River.” Cheshire, meanwhile, is “chester shire.”

For all the Latinate -cester’s that occupy its place names, the English language, like Leicester, is itself something of an underdog story. It survived once stronger (or at least better-funded clubs) on its historical pitch, from Norse to Latin to French. But then again, the Anglo-Saxons themselves were a visiting team: Celtic, too, as we also see in the likes of Leicester, played hard as well.

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soccer

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.

Soccer

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.

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