The most popular sport in the world is one in which people chase after a ball and kick it with their feet (and give it an occasional head-butt). In most places where this sport is enjoyed it is referred to in a straightforward fashion: football. No matter whether the language is Spanish (fútbol), French (football), German (fußball), Icelandic (fótbolta), Albanian (futboll), or Dutch (voetbal), you are likely to find some combination of foot and ball used to describe the game. Some countries are directly translating the word football, whereas others are using their language’s word for the two components (such as Malay and Indonesian, which use bola sepak and sepak bola, respectively).
However, in a few renegade countries this game is referred to by names having nothing to do with balls. For instance, in the United States (and a handful of other places) it is referred to as soccer. Why do American English speakers do this?
The quick and dirty answer is that soccer is a variant of an abbreviation. One common name for the sport in question is Association Football, and the earliest spelling of soccer on record is socca (presumably since it was considered most euphonious to abbreviate association in this fashion, rather than to call it assoc). For a short while socca and socker were used interchangeably with soccer, but by the early 20th century, the form we use today had become the dominant one. By the time the sport had caught on in the US, the word
was tethered to another sport in American English.
It should be noted that we in the US are not the only ones who refuse to call football by what many people seem to feel is its rightful name. In Italy it is commonly called calcio (from calciare, meaning “to kick”). And there are a number of other countries which also refer to it as soccer or some variant (such as South Africa, where one can hear it called either soccer or sokker; or Japan, where both sakkā and futtobōru are used).
We are unlikely to adopt the more commonly used word anytime soon, and it’s fine to criticize this as a North American idiosyncrasy, just so long as it’s understood where soccer comes from: the earliest recorded instance of the word found in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Brit, the 19th-century poet Ernest Christopher Dowson.
Ammon Shea is the author of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He lives in New York City with his wife (a former lexicographer), son (a potential future lexicographer), and two non-lexical dogs.