Thursday, September 06, 2007

We Call it Soccer

The Meanings of the Words 'Soccer' and 'Football'

Have you ever heard an AFL player insist, "It's not Aussie Rules, it's Football"? It would sound silly. But lads from every football code will say to their family/housemates as they go out the door that they're going to 'footy training'. They all also will habitually say they're going to watch a 'football game'.

Have you ever heard a ballet dancer say, "It's not ballet, it's dance"? That would also sound silly, for similar reasons. But he or she will say they're dancing, and going to dance classes.

A dog owner would never say, "it's not an Alsatian, it's a dog," because that would be silly, but they may say they're walking the dog.

Many times I've heard people say, "It's not soccer, it's football." That's silly too.

Here's a recent example from Four Four Two blogger Kevin Airs:

Because of the vagaries of TV rights, I had to watch the Community Shield match last night on ESPN. Words cannot describe how much I hate watching football on ESPN. Or “soccah”, as they seem to call it.

They use American football terminology (“That’s a great play”- plays are things in theatres with stages), they don't understand the rules (“That wasn’t offside” – yes, it was, Cole was interfering with play, you eejit) and they can't even recognise the players (“Chelsea seem to have brought on a new ‘keeper for the PKs” – it was Petr Cech without his eppi hat. And they’re called penalty kicks or spot kicks, not fuggen “PKs”).

Airs suggests that the commentators were incompetent as regards the rules and knowledge of the players, and I can't comment on that. What I'm commenting on that is his dismissive disparagement of 'American terminology'. I watched an entire Asia Cup game streamed to my computer with so much 'Chinese terminology' that I could only barely make out one of the players' names occasionally. Terrible business this infection of football with Chinese terminology. Someone might have mentioned that the World Game is played in every language and dialect, because I'm guessing the reason the commentators were using American terminology is because they were American.

But the key phrase for me - and far from picking on Airs who has just provided me with a good recent example of something widespread, I should thank him for providing me with an excellent example just as I was writing this essay - is the derisory, "“soccah”, as they seem to call it." Here is an emperor with no clothes. I'm assuming "they" are the millions of ordinary Americans (and Australians) who understand the word 'soccer' as to be referring to the round ball kicking game. They certainly don't seem to call the game that. They really do call it that, all the time, and they're understood every single time. And actually it's called 'soccer', a British word, in many countries in the world including America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, all of the Pacific, Korea and Japan.

Here's an even better example, particularly of the Orwellian silliness of what I'm talking about. On the AIS website it says in a cute information box down the side, "Did you know? Football is now the world-wide term used for what Australians formerly knew as soccer." This is pure spin and it only because it is so starkly twisted truth that we're capable of missing the absurdity of it. Read it again. "Did you know? Football is now the world-wide term used for what Australians formerly knew as soccer." Only adults could contrive to edict that a word is no longer in use despite ongoing, transparent, overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I remember for months I did try to argue with my son that the game was really called 'football'. His instinct for the real hasn't been obliterated by politics and ideology and for him I was just arguing against reality. He would point out every time I (necessarily, usually explaining my use of the word football) used the word soccer in conversation. Then he would go along the spines of my football books and point out all the uses of the word 'soccer' even in books published in the UK for a UK audience. Then he would point out every time a commentator - especially an English commentator - used the word soccer, again generally to describe the use of the word football. The evidence is overwhelming. "Soccer" in the English language is the specific term for a variety of the sport of the genus "Football." The FFA doesn't get to decree this any more than do the compilers of dictionaries. Every word's meaning is based on usage in a free market of symbols and meanings. The news for the AIS: The game is still "known", probably universally, as "soccer" in Australia, as in a number of other countries. Didn't we learn in the life-school of 20th Century political science to see through this sort of lingual triumphalism?

Will the Macquarie Dictionary leave the word soccer out next edition because it is no longer in use? Not only is the word in use, but it has an important, established function in our language and therefore will stay in use. When there is need to describe the game as contrary to other codes which also routinely, and quite rightly, call themselves 'football', our lingual faculties simply demand a specific term. And the joke is, 'soccer' doesn't have a synonym. 'Football', historically and in everyday use, is a generic word referring to a number of codes which in the latter 19th century and early 20th century crystallised through want of association from the thousands of football codes played in villages and cities across Britania and her colonies. Look up both words in any dictionary. They're not synonyms and their meanings are not in dispute.

The meaning of 'football' here is that, whether and when you can use your hands or not, it is a game played with a ball that is designed to be kicked with the foot. Historically these balls were made of all manner of materials and were no doubt a great variety of shapes and sizes. But they were contrived specifically to be able to be given a damn good kick, and their merits were judged on that basis. That remains true for all the football codes today.

I've had the privilege over the years of watching my son and his mates play (mostly handball, as it's turned out, until the last couple of years when it has been more football). A powerful observation has been their apparently innate proclivity to invent rules, changing and negotiating them very rapidly, but all agreeing, without awareness or comment, that an agreed set of rules is necessary. Naturally every schoolyard's handball, football or cricket will have different variations of the rules. This constantly creative dimension in child's play is, I reckon, probably the same spontaneous creative drive we see in kids inventing language. We appear to be hardwired to create rules within which to consociate. We all use them, but I'm inclined to think that it is the children in societies who have created and do create them. It's quite possible that from this anthropological perspective civilisation really is a game begun by children.

As an aside the other relationship between sport and language is that it appears that football and the English language (in which I'm including Shakespeare) have turned out to be the (possibly very) long term global residues of the now fully flaccid British Empire. For the English language of course we can rightly blame the oversized rebel child the USA, but not so for soccer. Ironically soccer flourished most and most rapidly in regions only (at best) obliquely friendly with the English. In any case, the spread of soccer occurred, in my view, in a very similar way to the spread of a language, but with very different barriers to growth. Also note that even in those places where soccer did not thrive throughout the 20th Century, football did thrive.

Those rules - whatever they are, in a schoolyard or an international code - the 17 laws in the case of soccer - are the strand of DNA upon which an entire social organism grows. And it wants to grow. It overcomes blockages to growth, when it does, by changing. When a new kid comes along generally he or she will have to go with the local rules, but might be a fresh source of variations. When two groups of kids meet however, they have to negotiate, either before the start or as they go along, which rules will apply.

All football is pretty similar in some basic ways. It's assumed, as it is in many games, that there is a space within which is 'in' and outside which is 'out'. This definable 'skin', defining the space of the game, is common to virtually every game as it is to every organism. It's assumed a kickable ball is used - for kids whatever is available - and that divided into two teams the object is for each team to get the ball up to one end of the field while stopping the other team doing the same. All football codes have these in common and I suggest that in schoolyards across the world there are infinite variations tried out. One lost code in football's history had no hands except for when taking a mark from a kick, where you got some sort of free kick. I remember at my primary school we generally played what we affectionately called 'Aussie No-Rules'. It still assumed the above basic features, but there were no other rules. It was mayhem, often quite violent, and a lot of fun. To a casual observer, what were we playing? It was football.

How different are these games really? Try this for a mental experiment, and I bet there's at least one bunch of kids in Japan who try this very thing this week, because kids try everything conceivable. Change one molecule of the Soccer DNA. Guys, you can now touch the ball with your hands. Well, first thing is next time the ball is at even Ronaldinho's feet he's going to pick it up, and then it's very quickly not going to work. Well, another change will be forced, because with all other rules the same Ronaldinho could then just run past the defenders, who can't tackle him bodily, and toss the ball past the goalie. So the kids can either abandon the change as silly or try one of two things. They can either limit the amount a person is able to run before they have to kick or pass the ball, or enable defenders to tackle more physically (or both). More changes would follow to tighten up the coherence of the game, and in short you either get something approximating AFL or something approximating rugby. Especially in the schoolyard which doesn't have to wait on bureaucratic approval, these transitions can and do occur very rapidly, and other changes will evolve as enjoyment, game coherence and personal taste dictate.

My mental picture of the social organism of football is one which has its roots in this 'schoolyard' - a metaphor here for anywhere humans - usually young ones - played around and invented rules for a game with a kickable ball. Because it is a team game it demands other teams, and as teams meet they need to agree on rules in order for the game to be enjoyable. If they don't agree the two variations survive but they don't get their game. If they agree on a set of rules, either on one set or an amalgam of the two, a 'league' develops. The league might have growth of its own, but the gravity is for attempts to be made to agree between leagues, cities and regions, so the best can seek out the best and, just so everyone can play.

This is a a philosophical caricature of the real history of course - a wank if you like. But continuing the story in the late 19th century that same organic process that began in the schoolyard yielded its logical telos, and official association rules of two main football codes were established. The colonies, including Ireland, more-or-less provided the rest.

The other apparently logical telos is nationalisation of codes, and indeed globalisation. In the case of soccer in particular the game's association around a codified set of rules certainly accelerated the spread of the code. In a Hegelian sense, the universal agreement of a code already exists as an unrealised potentiality right back there in the schoolyard, as surely as a seed contains a tree, an embryo a human, and the pre-Big-Bang universe self-consciousness in the form of complex life. This potentiality - even in the dreams of children occasionally a fleeting, dreaming desire for a 'world competition' of their favourite game - has probably existed in the games of children for millenia, but it in the 19th and 20th centuries is midwifed, by the grownups of course, with technologies of organisation, transport and communication.

'Football' is a very important word, but to deny it of its generic meaning, encompassing all of the codes and all of the development before and in between, is to deny it of its history and its identity as a general and extraordinary social development across the entire world.

So what of the word 'soccer'? It's certainly not American, or even Australian-and-American. We all know that it derives from the words 'Association Football', the name given to the ancestral version of our own round ball game by a bunch of public school toffs in England a century and a half ago (London, 1863), and I did at first see the word 'soccer' a little in that light. Already though, there is an enormous historicity about the word, as it is this event which defined our branch of the football species. But this link with 'Association Football' doesn't actually explain who or what brought the word about.

According to John Learmouth's formidably important (ok, a rather obscure source) Soccer for Young Beginners (1980), the origin of the name soccer also goes back to the English schoolyard:

At that time a favorite form of slang among public schoolboys and the alumni of these public schools was to shorten a word and then add "er" to the end of it. Using this slang they called breakfast "brecker," a preparatory school was a "prepper," and so on. And so, quite naturally, Rugby Football became "rugger" and Association Football became known as "soccer."

Pretty authentic stuff I reckon. Learmouth paints the picture of an environment where multiple codes were still around and this major breakthrough of football organisation had just occurred. That is, he describes an environment where the rules of language evolution demand a specific term to differentiate between variations within the generic. If and when there is no other football code, the specific term is redundant and will naturally fall into disuse. In terms of the use of the word 'football' and 'soccer', that's all that's happening.

There's a pretty straightforward reason why the word 'soccer' has been commonly used in Australia for decades. There are other football codes with mass followings. All four of these codes have been, and are, fairly regularly obliged to use the specific term for their code in everyday conversation. That's life in a multi-code nation. It's meeting a linguistic need.

Ironically and candidly the word soccer stays in use even among the most diehard footballists, as an adjective more-or-less to describe what they're talking about when they say 'football' in company outside the soccer context. The page on which we're informed that Australians "formerly knew" football as soccer has at the top of the page the title, "Australian Institute of Sport - Football (soccer)," defying its own propaganda. Is anyone else embarrassed by this?

On the AIS site they routinely use the term, "football (soccer)". Once again, if you're obliged to use the term 'soccer' to annotate the term 'football', due to the use of the latter term for a variety of codes, the rules of language development will gravitate toward the use of the specific term for efficiency. Those who insist, "it's not soccer, it's football" are insisting on an encumbrance on our language in a lingual environment where the generic term is often not appropriate to express our meaning.

The need for a word in a language will demand the word. Here's a sentence with no use of the word soccer whatsoever - "Football - you know football-football - is the most dominant, universally played football code in the world." It just doesn't work. Another word is demanded. I don't really care if you call it Dorothy but the fact is there is no generally understood synonymic equivalent to the word 'soccer'.

In Japan, it is called soccer, I don't know how many other Asian countries call it soccer, but I think it is a marketing myth that "the rest of the World calls it football." There may well be enclaves of working class folk in England who actually don't know what 'soccer' means through such prolonged lack of need for a specific term. But all footballers, coaches, administrators, sports media and serious fans around the world know what soccer means, and may or may not have occasional call to use the word in a sentence.

Football is generic, soccer is specific. It seems a little laboured to spell it out, because it is obvious, but it also seems strangely necessary.

10 Comments:

Blogger Mike Salter said...

For me, it's dead simple.

I call it football for the same reason I cross my sevens and like Neenish Tarts: because I'm of continental European heritage.

If others call it soccer it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, to paraphrase (I think) Abe Lincoln. Soccer is the name by which it's most commonly known in Australia and that's fine with me.

The rush to call it "football" is just a fashion statement. The most ridiculous manifestation of this is in the sport section of the SMH website, where they're ideologically determined to call it football (for whatever reason), but presumably to avoid confusion, they actually link to their soccer section with the title "A-League" (it was "Asian Cup" in July).

Classic case of ideology/fashion statements winning out over common sense.

September 06, 2007 11:23 am  
Anonymous Kevin Airs said...

Hi Hamish,

Just for the record, I was specifically referring to the two American commentators on ESPN that night, their pronunciation of soccer as 'soccah' and their use of American football (ie gridiron) terms in a game of soccer/football.

Personally I couldn't care less whether it's called football or soccer, although I would prefer there to be no ambiguity when I talk about footy.

Hope that makes it a bit clearer.

KA

September 06, 2007 1:13 pm  
Blogger Hamish said...

No worries Kevin. As I said in the article, your comments really just came to my attention at a very convenient time to use them as an example. It certainly wasn't a personal dig (to be honest I don't know your work enough to have much of an opinion of it), and I feel I read or hear an example of what I'm talking about at least once a week. What's more, I used to make the same sort of comments myself.

Nice to see you've had a lurk on my blog, and thanks for commenting.

September 06, 2007 11:52 pm  
Blogger Neil said...

A great piece of writing, I look forward to reading the second or third parts if it comes to that. For me, I switch between both - sometimes I call it soccer and sometimes football. Personally, I am not fussed what it is called - its a great game to be a part of.

September 08, 2007 5:49 pm  
Blogger Cecilia said...

The ESPN commentary drives me nuts too. I sometimes mute it, much like when Harper commentates A-League!


Anyway, to the football/soccer debate...

Coming from a South American background where we speak a mix of Spanish and English at home we always say futbol or football - much the same sound in the end anyway!

Growing up in the Australian school system, I was always a bit of an outsider, primarily for not being Australian or English-speaking in background, and secondly for being the only girl in the school soccer team through primary school and early high school. Yep, I called the school team the soccer team. Simply put, the football team was of the AFL kind. If I concentrate, in certain contexts I will call football 'soccer'.

Usually I'll call it football, and my friends (football/soccer fans or not) know what I mean - likewise I know what they mean when they say football referring to AFL. We've all adapted to each other. And we don't argue about it either - although I suspect it's because we all know that we'll each stick to our guns!

There's always a bit of a mix-up to start with, but we sort ourselves out. Melbourne Victory is easy, but VPL team Richmond causes some problems. They'll eventually get it and we're all happy. In the end, I don't think it matters too much as to what it's called. Humans are clever enough to adapt, even if some of them prefer AFL. :P

September 10, 2007 12:40 pm  
Blogger john said...

Crikey I'll have to print this all out and read it in my lunch hour.

By the way I watched one of the US major league games and it sounded like the commentators where calling a basketball game - or desperately wanted to.

September 12, 2007 10:17 pm  
Blogger Rio said...

Perhaps the author of that 442.com article should do a comparison of capital values of all the professional sporting leagues.

The NFL is a bigger business than any european professional league, including CL and UEFA Cup. That's why we have to use different terminologies to differentiate that and soccer. Political and economical reasons had made americans diverse in term of their tastes in sports, but using the word "soccer" doesn't make us any less fans of the game than those that called it "football".

In fact, more europeans watch football/soccer because they're stereotypical. These people watch the game just because there weren't other choices and everyone around them (which also include stereotypes) watches it.

On other hand, soccer being a less popular sport in the US meant the people that watch it are more likely to be actually enjoying the game. Claiming to like soccer certainly doesn't help to gain popular among those that followed NFL, NBA and MLB.

ESPN commentators suck, I have no objections to this. Soccer simply isn't a priority for their business. They can have the worst commentators, and people will still have to tune in to them because for Americans, that's one of the very few options of live soccer broadcasts.

Haven said that, if europeans thought this was a good enough reason for them to diss Americans, Australians and all those that came from more diverse backgrounds, then they're morons. The root of soccer culture is just as deep in these countries, only it wasn't carefully nourished like in Europe or South America.

September 13, 2007 11:40 am  
Blogger Hamish said...

It sounds like "ESPN commentary is crap" is a common sentiment and for plenty of reasons. I haven't had the displeasure, but from what I'm hearing it sounds like they've got a Californian doing the commentary, which is a big mistake. When America presents its New York accent to the world, all is much cooler. I love America and Americans and am a bit sensitive to anti-Americanism, which despite Hollywood and American politics, is generally undeserved. But like many people I am completely put off by the West Coast accent of Hollywood. Like the South African and Kiwi accents, it should be banned for aesthetic reasons.

Good to hear people are using the words 'soccer' and 'football' in whatever ways they bloody well want to and for whatever reasons bloody well move them. Language and meaning will sort themselves out just fine without any social stipulation.

Nice to get your perspective from the US Rio. (If you're Californian, I am so, so sorry - the accent is not the measure of a man after all).

September 17, 2007 7:03 pm  
Blogger Hamish said...

Neil, I've dropped the "Part 1" part of the title as this article certainly stands in its own right (and let's face it is long enough - I suspect if I had an editor it would be about half the size).

Part 2 still exists, I potter with it when I feel like it and it will be here eventually but as a separate piece about the various football codes in Australia and how having multiple codes in Australia, from the schoolyard to the professional leagues, effects the soccer.

Don't hold your breath. I write for fun, so now work with a philosophy of writing if and when I feel like it, and not otherwise. But the draft is there and I'll get it to some sort of completion eventually.

September 27, 2007 7:20 am  
Blogger Jakec said...

Why is calling a sport you invented what you want silly exactly. you realise that you can't call a sport you didn't create your own name

April 05, 2009 12:50 am  

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