Did Fan Violence Kill That Word Soccer?

Further to Gabriele Marcotti’s article on why “soccer” is not an Americanism, (thankyou Ross for the link, btw) I’ve noticed something really quite interesting about the way the word has been used by the heavy press.

Take this clipping from the Daily Telegraph (24th February 1978):


(contra that heading, it is the Telegraph). Calmly and without fanfare, the DT chooses to employ “soccer” as its subject heading.

For the rest of the seventies, and for the first couple of years in the eighties, the Times and Telegraph use soccer without inverted commas – and without italics, although I feel driven to them myself.

But then something shifts. Little by little, match reports and commentary drop the term, so that by 1985 the term is used solely when the game is connected with bad news. Like this:


There is some evidence there that in the years after 1980 soccer became associated, inch by inch, with the side of the game that would end, in that beautiful summer of 1985, in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

True or not, that’s long enough ago for an entire generation of young men to grow into their mid-twenties never having seen soccer used as an ordinary English noun. It’s an interesting example of a word setting out as slang, gaining respectability, and then reverting to slang, culturally disreputable slang at that.

UPDATE: If NewsUK is any guide, the process was all but over as early as 1991:


11 Replies to “Did Fan Violence Kill That Word Soccer?”

  1. Interesting idea.

    What I can see it does seem true of the Times & Telegraph, except I’d say it’s not in terms of bad news but anytime it appears in the non-sport pages it is called soccer. However it’s certainly not the case (as far as I can see) in the Guardian which in 1992 was happily referring to ‘international soccer’ and ‘world cup soccer’ and the ‘soccer results’ etc. Also in general ‘soccer hooligan’ runs about 1-5 to ‘football hooligan’ in terms of mentions, which in itself doesn’t tell you anything but it seems a similar ratio to things like ‘soccer team’ and ‘football’ team’.

    One idea I had is it’s not so much football has stopped being soccer but rugby has stopped being football, and so the use of soccer – except perhaps outside of te sports pages where it immediately tells you its Association rather than the other form(s) – has become less important? How does searches for ‘rugby football’ compare to ‘rugby’ say in the 1960s and 1970s to 1990s and 2000s? [and indeed how would you define a search to show that??]

  2. Yes, I had been wondering if it had something to do with rugby ceasing to be football, although I’ve found – living in a rugby town as I now do – that this is just not the case. I mean to say that they still talk about “the football” when they mean “that game of rugby pending this afternoon”.

    Interesting that the Graun should have kept on for so long, given that they are now just about the worst of the “Americanism” exponents!

    I’m also wondering about the influence of fashion (the wholesale and violent rejection of things thought of as ’70s in the ’80s) and of class (“soccer” becoming non-u, also in the ’80s, helped along by fan violence).

    And the sport pages/non-sport pages gap is very interesting, although my sleeping pill is now taking effect and I can’t for the life of me actually express why.

    Help me in my ignorance, though – Guardian archive searches – is this a case of being able to source use of the term free of charge but not to read the full article?

    Because I’m an NLS member, I get access now to the full “British Newspapers” archive, which is completely addictive. In 1879, for instance, Old Etonians toured Scotland, and their captain stayed over at my man Kinnaird’s Perthshire stately home. But then the Tay Bridge collapsed, and because the skipper was employed by the Board of Trade, he had to abandon football and head off to investigate the disaster. Six years later, Kinnaird puts his money behind Henry Stanley’s eccentric expedition up the Congo to Sudan to free Emin Pasha, that is, two years after his last cup final. I suppose Ashley Cole could have afforded to also..

  3. I just use the NewsUK Kensington&Chelsea library archive which goes back to 1992 for the Guardian.

  4. Using that I can reveal in the Guardian that on July 7th 1997 the soccer pages retired for the summer, and when they resumed (in a major way) in August for the new season they were called football.

    While researching that I found this quote from a BBC documentary “Kicking and Screaming ” which was about the history of football: ‘And for all those traditionalists who frown on the word `soccer’ as an Americanism, it was in fact first coined by an Old Carthusian in the 1860s.’ That certainly predates the OED’s first reference.

  5. “Soccer” must have been in that Parisian underpass alongside the other poor victims.

    I suppose the question now moves to WHO used “soccer” and how: perhaps it is a class thing i.e. do you remember referring to “soccer players” in the school canteen (I don’t) or in the stands on Saturday in the seventies? It could conceivably have been a writer’s conceit throughout its life, its use confined to the press and television.

    Not entirely surprised by the early use there – isn’t there usually some sort of delay between the birth of a term and its earliest appearance in print (assuming that the OED gets somewhere close to the earliest use)? But I think we can now be satisfied that anyone who (a) regards themselves as a traditionalist and (b) who thinks soccer is an Americanism is (a) kidding themselves and (b) wrong. Which actually, now I think about it, describes quite a lot of the people who call up 606..

  6. I’ve never talked of rugby as “football” but have always been happy to call various fine rugby players, usually backs, good footballers. Hey ho.

  7. I guess also newspapers have their own reasons for preferring certain words – ‘soccer’ is about one character (the lls of football are quite narrow) shorter than ‘football’ so might be favoured, especially in the old days, by newspaper layout staff.

  8. Now I think about it, that’s almost certainly what I really heard, Dearieme. Anyway, here comes the Six Nations and Edinburgh full to bursting with rugby supporters, so I’ll soon know for sure. Last year we had the Welsh here, and we spent an evening in the Ensign Ewart listening to a pub full of them singing the old hymns before walking home through a hushed, snowbound city: one of the most beautiful nights of my life.

  9. I’d forgotten about the demands of typesetting. That probably mattered more prior to Wapping than many of us now remember.

  10. I used to love being in the Murrayfield crowd when the Welsh sang, or when the French sang the Marseillaise. I remember an early 60s evening after we lost to Wales when the boyish me was stood pints in a Rose St pub by Welsh supporters by way of apology for their side’s dire tactics.

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