Wor(l)ds for football | From ‘ball-coise’ to ‘kaduregel’ to ‘voetbal’

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Soft sell | Thirty-two renderings for “football” appear as a small representation of the many possibilities. The medium is 100% organic cotton, from CaféPress, $18.99.

We recently had occasion to consult the Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989) for the first appearances of the diminutive “soccer” as shorthand for “association football.” Not surprisingly, the word appears relatively early in the modern game’s development, with the variant “socca’ ” clipped and listed by Oxford lexicographers in 1889. “Socker” appears in 1891, mentioned in parallel with “rugger,” the “rugby football” short form that Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Jun 06 Atlantic Monthly refers to as part of the “gruesome Oxonian line in diminutives” (“Non-native Sons,” pp. 133–35). “Cuppers” became posh daily slang for a Cup match, “Divers” for a divinity exam.

This is the long explanation for why we include “socca’ ” and “socker” on our newest T-shirt offering (see above). Over time we have compiled, with a major assist from Sprechen sie FuíŸball?” 8 Mar 06). We learn from the list that Czechs refer to a mullet-style haircut simply as a “Bundesliga.” To daily parlance, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson in 2002–03 added “squeaky bum time,” now included in Collins English Dictionary along with recent football-inspired additions “bouncebackability,” “galactico,” “groundshare,” “Ingerland,” “silver goal” and “tapping-up” (Tom Dart, “Have a Word—Dowie and Ferguson Rewrite the Dictionary,” The Times, 9 Jun 05).

Perhaps the most specialized and thoroughgoing compilation in English remains the 2004 Football Lexicon (Oleander), what reviewer John Sturrock alludes to as “a jogtrot through the clichés” (London Review of Books, 2 Dec 04). The compilers, John Leigh and David Woodhouse, offer, for example, a special usage example for “custodian”: “Staple synonym always available for goalkeeper. Likely to be used with a degree of wry self-consciousness these days.” One also finds “afters,” describing the aftermath of a contentious challenge, and the related “handbags”: “Describes a contretemps in which arms are raised but which is not a fullblown fist fight.”

Please feel free to comment on the list of “words for football” above or to submit additions and, especially, corrections.


Our readership’s typographic sensibilities have encouraged us to refine the design slightly, eliminating the dreaded discretionary hyphens, and to incorporate bola sepak from Malay and Bahasa Indonesia as well as the Bengali (phuá¹­abala).

Embracing a spirit of brash consumerism with both hands, mugs and note cards are also available in the same design.

7 comments on this post.
  1. David Keyes:

    Are you accepting slang to refer to soccer? If so, Costa Ricans call it mejenga. I have no idea what the origin of that word is, but I like it!

  2. sarah:

    Bola sepak—football in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.

  3. Richard Witzig:

    A nice T-shirt indeed. My new book has 56 versions of “football” on the cover and inside. … Book info at http://www.theglobalartoffootball.com.

  4. Cesar:

    Great shirt … I have to get me one! Interesting idea for a book, Richard. My blog: http://www.roadto2010final.blogspot.com.

  5. Guido:

    Words can have power and here in Australia there is a debate about the word “football.”

    There are three codes in Australia. The biggest one—although more popular in the state of Victoria, where it originated—is Australian Rules Football. Then there is Rugby League—most popular in the states of New South Wales and Queensland. And then there is the “world football” which most people would call “soccer.”

    In Australia, if you talked about “football” people would immediately think that you would be talking about either Australian Rules or Rugby League depending which state you were at.

    The word “soccer” is intensely disliked by many of the “world football” fraternity in Australia, and with that the nickname for the national team: The Socceroos. This has been heightened since the decision of the governing body Soccer Australia to rename itself Football Federation of Australia. And it decided to define the sport as football.

    This decision was also taken because the old Soccer Australia was a badly administered, mildly corrupt organisation that was the laughing stock of Australian sport. After reform, mainly instigated by the Australian government, a new well-run organisation was created and a new competition was initiated—the A-League, which in fact had as its slogan for the first year “It’s football, but not as you know it”.

    This has created some consternation amongst some journalists and followers of the other bigger codes. Mainly because it causes confusion.

    But the importance here is that the term “football” conjures a sense of superiority compared to the round-ball game. As someone wrote in a letter, “You can call it football all you like but in Australia your sport is and will remain ‘soccer.’ ” The meaning is that Australian Rules and Rugby are the true football codes in Australia, and your version is a foreign product that does not deserve the term.

    The term “soccer” therefore is used as a way of exclusion—a way to put the sport “in its place,” and that place is outside the mainstream culture of Australia.

  6. GlobalGame:

    Thanks very much for the thoughtful post on the word “football” in the Australian context. As Australia and the United States often are linked in discussions of football cultures—both having nurtured rival football codes and distinctive sporting traditions—it is interesting to note that the word “football” in America does not carry such cultural weight.

    The governing federation in America, for example, did not add the word “soccer” to its title until 1945, when it became the U.S. Soccer Football Association. The word “football” was dropped in 1974 with creation of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

    Increasingly, I hear announcers on such satellite TV outlets as the Fox Soccer Channel and even acquaintances, in casual conversation, pepper their speech with the word “football” to refer to the world game. I have always done so on this site, since saying “world soccer” seems like an absurd formulation.

    In short, it makes sense to use the word “soccer” in North America for clarity of referent. I doubt that many supporters of FC Dallas in Major League Soccer know what the “FC” stands for.

  7. Pawel:

    I’ve just noticed that your tee is missing a Polish name of the world’s favourite game. The term “pilka nozna” is—unlike in other Eastern European countries—our rendition from an English origin. I believe—remembering that Poles were twice the third-place team in the world—it would be nice to have it on your T-shirt as it looks quite exotic.

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