Why do I call this the “Words You Should Know” podcast? It’s not a lecture. The whole idea of grammar police annoys me. This is the podcast that reminds you that Ben Franklin and Kurt Cobain both influenced our modern English language, and that spelling memes deserve to be debunked. See past episodes for those details.
Today, let’s start with Franz Kafka, and if you’re thinking of the author of The Metamorphosis and having flashbacks to a story about a man transformed into a giant cockroach-like bug, your mind is in the right place. One of my favorite quotes from Kafka is, “Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
What are your most intense obsessions? It’s a good question to ask yourself isn’t it? And are you following them mercilessly?
Season 3, Episode 6: Why “Soccer” instead of “Football,” Americans? Seriously, why?
For some of us, that obsession is writing, storytelling, and changing the world in our own ways with our words. For others, it can be so many things. Maybe your most intense obsession has to do with sports, and you know what, that’s okay too.
And that’s where we’re going with today’s podcast. Do you know what’s been bugging me for an awfully long time? Why do we, in America, call soccer “soccer”? Why isn’t it football, as the sport is called throughout most of the rest of the world? “Football” makes sense. In soccer, you’re using your feet. In American football, there’s minimal kicking involved. Do the kickers and punters get all the attention? Hardly. So what’s up with that?
Here’s what we need to know:
We’ve talked about the differences between American and British English before (here’s looking at you rebellious Ben Franklin and Noah Webster), but this isn’t quite as clear-cut as you might imagine.
Let me ask this, who first used the word “soccer”? Was it someone in England or the United States?
Yep, it’s true.
The word “football” has meant a few things over the years. In 1863, when England’s Football Association drafted its official rules, there was another type of football in the mix. This was called “Rugby football,” a variety that originated in the Rugby boarding school. But in the world of sports, so many things gain short-hand names. Rugby football was often called “Rugger” in the 1880s, and Association Football was often called “Assoccer” (stemming from that “Association” name). “Assoccer” was sometimes further shortened to “soccer” or “socker,” but it was never a widely accepted term. Just a nickname among players.
By the 1900s, rugby was just “rugby,” and football became simply “football,” for most of the world. But then the Americans were doing their own thing. They took these two old football games, rugby and association football, and merged them to create their own game, which they dubbed “football.” Both rugby football and association football were a part of it, so the name made sense. Absolutely. Logically. Sure. Just not on a global scale.
So to distinguish new American-dubbed “football” with the “Association football” played across the world, the Americans borrowed this “soccer” term. And the rest is history.
And now you know. American inventiveness. Borrowed vocabulary. It’s really the story of so many other language explorations we’ve touched on, isn’t it?
“Football,” of course, is hardly the only word that stems from a body part. I can’t help myself. I have to share a bit more on this.
“Foot” linked with “ball” is pretty self-explanatory.
A few others a bit more surprising in this category include “gargoyle,” “hysteria,” “genuine,” and “handsome.”
The word “gargoyle” comes from the Old French word for throat, gargoule, because the stone statues not only looked fierce but also redirected rain water away from the building they perched upon by flowing water through their throat waterspouts.
“Hysteria,” much to the annoyance of modern women everywhere, comes from the Greek word for the womb, hystera, because it was once thought hysteria came from an imbalance in the uterus. #sigh
“Genuine,” meaning the real thing, has a slightly confused origin, but it seems it may come from the Latin word for one’s knee, genu, because a father would be able to assess a child’s true paternity by placing the child on his knee. Um, #yikes?
And then there’s “handsome.” This one is so obvious and yet so not. You might not be thinking about hands when you think of someone being handsome, but that was the original origin of this word that has had it’s meaning transform time and time again over the years. “Handsome” once meant for something to be nearby or at hand. Later, it meant appropriate, then it meant skillful then someone generous. It wasn’t until the 1500s that it meant good-looking.
Should we talk about the genuine hysteria over a team called the gargoyles? Maybe, despite their name, their players are actually quite handsome.
I don’t know about you, but I’m at least feeling good about having all of that soccer-football confusion settled.
What’s next on your list of intense obsessions? The powerful use of language? Yep, I’m with you on that one.
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And if you’re looking for an Elements of Style for the Twitter Generation, check out my book, Get a Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused. Newbery-winning author Meg Medina says, “You should keep a copy on your desk.” Sounds like good advice to me!
Or if fiction is your passion, stay tuned for more details on my new book, The Novel Editing Workbook: 50 Tricks and Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript.
Words. Language. Communications. You’ve got this.