Another entertaining New York Times article by Sarah Lyall about the terminology of soccer/football. This one has to do with the name of the game itself. She starts off by quoting a 1905 letter to the Times. (And please put down your pen: I refer to the New York Times on second and subsequent references as “the Times,” because it would be silly to carry on writing “the New York Times” over and over again. If I mean to refer to The Times of London, I will say “The Times of London,” or “The Times.”)
It seems a thousand pities that in reporting Association football matches The New York Times, in company with all the other newspapers, should persistently call the game “socker.” In the first place, there is no such word, and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.
There’s a facsimile of the letter, which fascinatingly continues:
Mr. Tabor was correct that the term originated in England as a slang term for “Association Football,” but he was wrong in a number of respects. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citations of the word, all from England, are as follows: “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches” (1889); ” A sterling player, and has the best interest of the ‘socker’ game at heart” (1891); and “The rival attractions of ‘rugger’ and ‘socker’” (1894). Not until 1895 do we find the “k”-less version: “When the boat~race, sports, and ‘soccer’ are in most men’s minds.”
There was a reason why the nickname, however it was spelled, was so appealing in America. This was the precise moment that a very different game we called “football” was rapidly gaining popularity. Lyall documents how the Times went back and forth between “socker” and “soccer” for about a decade, finally settling on the latter in about 1914.
Citing an academic paper, Lyall writes that over in Britain, “soccer” continued to be used “happily — right alongside ‘football”’— until at least the 1970s, when a surge of bad temper and anti-Americanism made it virtually radioactive.” She mentions the autobiography of Matt Busby, the manager of Manchester United in the 1950s and 1960s, Soccer at the Top, and another book of the period, George Best: The Inside Story of Soccer’s Super-Star.
The thing that tickles me about the whole history is the way the American term unwittingly incorporates the odd (to us) British habit of using what Lyall calls “the infantilizing ‘er’ diminutive to random words.” As she says,
Rugby, under this system, had been shortened to “rugger,” a term that is still widely used. Even today, English people sometimes call football “footie,” but that is another issue.