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How come Americans refer to soccer differently than they do to football?

Silly Americans, always doing things differently - not using the metric system, measuring temperatures in Fahrenheit, driving mostly automatic cars, calling football soccer. Well, my fellow Americans…I have good news for you. For at least one of those things, we can blame the British.

While most of the world refers to the sport as football, the name soccer, which Americans use, came directly from Britain around 200 years ago. Surprisingly, it was actually still used interchangeably with football until well into the 20th century. It only began to change exclusively to football around 1980, and it’s thought that the Brits only really stopped using “soccer” because of its American context. So, they invented it. We kept it. And they abandoned it because we kept it.

Where did the word “soccer” come from?

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Several games involving a ball, whether it be hitting, kicking, throwing, etc., were often referred to as different forms of “football” back in the 1800s. Soccer as we know it today became an official sport in 1863, when several English schools and clubs got together and formed the Football Association to establish a standard set of rules. Rugby was then known as “rugby football”, so it was necessary to distinguish the two. Thus, it became known as “Association Football” in England.

So how did it go from Association Football to soccer then? The story is much like how pets get their nicknames. They start out as Emmitt Smith Jr., then it becomes Smitty, then Smitten Kitten…you get my point. Association Football is a long word, and people don’t like that. It’s a lot of effort. So the British players began calling it “assoc”, which transformed to “assoccer”, and then finally “soccer” or “soccer football”.

We know why the British stopped using the name soccer. But why did the Americans keep it? In America, other sports began to emerge, one of which adopted the name football (from rugby football) and was the more popular sport in the country. So to distinguish, soccer stuck for the sport with the ball you kick, and football stuck for the sport with the ball you throw.

Where did the word “football” come from?

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This begs the question…where did the name football then come from? The British like to argue that what Americans call football and they call American football or gridiron football, makes no sense because it’s mostly played with your hands. So should we call it handball? Oh, wait, that one is taken, too. Then they argue it should be called hand egg because the shape is not your typical round ball shape. It has not caught on - at least, not in America. (Fun fact: the people who invented the oval shape for the rugby ball and football were both European!) Rugby, soccer, and American football all evolved from the same sport, which was originally a sport that involved a bit more kicking.

Okay, then why did it not change from rugby football to American rugby, instead of just football? This, I cannot answer. However, one could argue that we call it football due to the length of the ball, which is approximately one foot. We measure using the Imperial System, remember? (Which also started out in Britain, but I digress.)

In summary:

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Rugby football became “rugby” in England.

Association football became “soccer” in England.

Rugby football came to the US and evolved into another version of the game. That game became “football” in the US and rugby football became “rugby”.

Soccer came to the US and stayed “soccer”.

Soccer and football were used interchangeably in England until they realized they didn’t want to be associated with the Americans, and started calling it “football” exclusively.

The British now mock the Americans for using soccer.

I hope this clears things up for you if you ever wondered where this big difference between soccer and football came from.


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