Will you be watching England in the soccer this weekend? They are playing Ukraine in the European soccer championship. I love the soccer, me. Soccer, soccer, soccer. Can I say “soccer” again?
You already know where we’re headed here. There is no easier way of annoying a British soccer fan than referring to soccer as “soccer”. Despite the perennial popularity of Gaelic football, a surprisingly large number of Irish supporters will also get themselves into a tizzy at mention of the s-word.
The perception has developed that “soccer” is a filthy Americanism and that if we keep saying “soccer” — as I am doing in this column — we’ll end up with leaping cheerleaders and teams named after North American wild animals. If the word “soccer” is heard in the wild, it is customary to repeat it in a bad American accent and make terrible jokes about hotdogs, Uncle Sam and the availability of handguns in Walmart. Saying “soccer” is worse than an affectation. It is a betrayal.
Here is the odd thing. Until relatively recently, “soccer” was, in the United Kingdom, an unavoidable synonym for Association Football. Indeed, it derives from the first word in the sport’s official name. Linguists have found records of the word “assoccer” being used in the 19th century to help distinguish the older pastime from upstart “rugger”. By the time of the second World War, it had become “soccer” and was as commonly used as “football” for the “round ball, no hands” code.
Say this to the average England fan now and, if all goes well, you will be greeted merely with disbelief. Anger is at least as likely. But it takes only a modicum of research to confirm the dread word was uttered regularly until deep into the 1980s.
David Kynaston's invaluable Modernity Britain: A Shake of the Dice, begins with a Daily Mirror report on an international match from 1959. That paper's Bill Holden explained "the storm which lashed Britain has swept fear into the hearts of Sweden's soccer stars" (how close we were to having an eerily topical reference there).
Matt Busby, the legendary manager of Manchester United, titled his autobiography Soccer at the Top: My Life in Football. Bobby Moore, captain of England's World Cup-winning side from 1966, edited The Book of Soccer. I'm looking at the box for a 50-year-old World Cup edition of "Subbuteo Table Soccer" and the word "football" appears nowhere in the packaging.
The temporary rise of soccer in the United States made the word unclean. The mystery is how a collective linguistic amnesia fell so quickly upon the soccer-watching population
Anybody who grew up with Match of the Day in the 1970s will — if they can get past their own baffling self-indoctrination — remember Jimmy Hill and David Coleman bandying "soccer" on a weekly basis. Gary Lineker, born a year after that Daily Mirror report, is easily old enough to remember those times, but you will very rarely (I can't swear to "never") hear him say "soccer" on the show's 21st century incarnation.
So how the heck did this happen? Stefan Szymanski, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote a paper on the subject in 2014. “Since 1980 the usage of the word “soccer” has declined in British publications, and where it is used, it usually refers to an American context,” he wrote. “This decline seems to be a reaction against the increased usage in the US which seems to be associated with the highpoint of the NASL [North American Soccer League] around 1980.” To that point, Prof Szymanski confirmed, “soccer” and “football” were “almost interchangeable”.
The 1984 Shoot annual was still advertising itself as “from Britain’s top-selling soccer magazine”, but, by 1990, British pundits were in full retreat from “soccer”. The run up to the, ahem, 1994 Soccer World Cup in the USA finished off the word for good. The tabloids were awash with scare stories about goals being widened and the game being broken up into four quarters. None of that was ever likely to happen, but the association was enough to make a demonic mantra of “soccer”. It survived in Ireland where GAA remains the default code, but even here there are occasional grumbles.
So, the process is clear enough. The temporary rise of soccer in the United States made the word unclean. We can, perhaps, compare with the renaming of German Shepherds as Alsatians in the aftermath of the first World War (no, not an urban myth apparently).
The mystery is how a collective linguistic amnesia fell so quickly upon the soccer-watching population. The generation that grew up with "soccer" — Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and the gang — banished the word from their lips. The succeeding cohort came to believe the word had barely ever been spoken between the Shetland Archipelago and the Isle of Wight.
This all happened weirdly recently. It was about the same time that 90 percent of the Irish population decided “crack” was an Irish word and determined to spell it as such when writing in English. But we shan’t go there again.
Anyway, soccer, soccer, soccer…