Why is soccer called “soccer” in the U.S. while it’s called “football” (or some local variation) everywhere else? There are two short answers and a long answer to that question. First short answer: we already have a sport called “football.” Second short answer: the U.S. isn’t the only English-speaking country that calls it “soccer”: so do Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, for similar reasons. What are those reasons? That leads us to the long answer, a fascinating story that involves the intersection of sport, language, history, and social class. Let’s begin.
Soccer’s beauty lies in its stark simplicity: kick the ball into your opponent’s goal area. That’s it. As such, versions of this sport have been around for as long as humans have had something to kick, be it a piece of fruit, a small stone, the skull of an enemy.
Yep, the skull of an enemy. The sport we call soccer emerged from the practice, in medieval England, of the entire town coming together to kick (or punch, or throw) whatever was available from one end of town to the other. And sometimes, according to Mental Floss, “whatever was available” could be the skull of an enemy invader.
Eventually, cooler heads (heh) prevailed, and instead, a ball was used. Still, substituting a ball for a skull didn’t make the games any less violent. Punching, tackling, biting, probably stabbing, and other forms of violence were par for the course, and sometimes competitors wound up dead. Eventually, the Crown put a stop to the practice.
By the 16th century, wealthy English young lads were once again playing slightly-more-civilized versions of the ancient medieval battle game at their snooty schools. Over at Rugby, the lads preferred to play a version of the game that involved carrying and throwing the ball as much as kicking it, while over at Eton, the lads preferred to just kick the ball with their feet.
Both schools, however, called their game “football,” leading to confusion.
In 1863, according to Football History, a committee convened in London to sort things out and, in the process, standardize rules. From this meeting emerged two sports: Rugby Football and Association Football.
Meanwhile, over in the U.S., the Rugby Football style was infinitely more popular. Eventually, the word “Rugby” got dropped from the name, and the sport was just called “football.” However, because American universities and sports clubs didn’t cotton to rules set down by committees an ocean away, American football evolved from Rugby into the game we recognize today, which is sometimes called “gridiron football.”
And yes, snarky European haters love to point out that American football is played mostly with your hands, with a ball that is more egg-shaped, and thus should more accurately be called “handegg.” But language is an inexact science, and it is constantly evolving, so to heck with European haters.
Meanwhile, up in Canada, the American game was also being played, and indeed, to this day Canadian football is an almost exact copy of the American game. Over in Australia and New Zealand, Rugby remained more popular of the two sports, and retained the name “Rugby.”
An Australian version of the game also evolved on its own and is now known as Australian Rules Football, which combines elements of Rugby, Association Football, and Gridiron Football.
Thus, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, “football” referred to a local sport, and they went with the word “soccer” to refer to association football.
But why “soccer” and not “association football” then?
Remember that 1863 meeting mentioned a few paragraphs above, which bestowed the name “association football”?
It’s been a thing for some time for wealthy upper-class schoolboys to change words by dropping a syllable and adding “-er” or “-ers” to the word. For example, at Eton, “breakfast” became “brekkers.” Or at Oxford, a young classmate from Birmingham named J.R.R. Tolkien became “Tollers.”
So the lads playing association football just started calling it “asoccer” before the word evolved into just “soccer.” Meanwhile, the rest of England just called it “football.”
And thus we have the situation that we have today. American (gridiron) Football, Rugby, Australian Rules Football, and Association Football/Soccer all evolved from the same basic sport, but each took on their own names and own flavors as the centuries passed. By the time soccer started getting popular in the U.S. – or at least, started getting recognized as a club sport (it wouldn’t become popular nationwide until the middle 2000’s) – we’d already developed our own “football” and there was no need to add to the confusion.