“Surely, soccer’s the American word for football”, is a view commonly expressed by many followers of the game. But, as we shall see, it is a British English word with a history almost as old as that of ‘association football’, from which it derives. In this article I shall consider the origins of the word ‘soccer’ and when it came into use.
Newspaper reports from the 1890s provide clear evidence that ‘soccer’ was in common usage from the middle of that decade and that its origins were in the slang developed by students at Oxford University. In what was almost certainly a syndicated column, ‘Notes from Oxford,’ the North Wales Chronicle for 14 March 1891 reported: “Oxford undergraduates, especially those who are athletes, have passionate fondness for the termination ‘er.’ The number of coined words which are made to end in the termination ‘er’ is quite astounding, and these are absolutely unknown outside the Oxford circle. The following are fair examples, which are added to tickle the reader’s ingenuity: what does he think of: - ragger, fogger, roller, footer, rugger, brecker, soccer, fresher, &c.?”
Towards the end of the 1890s the Football Echoes column of the Yorkshire Evening Post (23 September 1899) informed its readers: “It will perhaps interest readers of these Echoes to know why Association and Rugby football are commonly known as ‘Soccer’ and ‘Rugger’ respectively. At the Universities it is the correct slang to break off the latter syllables of words, double the last consonant, and ad ‘er.’ So ‘Sociation becomes ‘Soccer’ and Rugby ‘Rugger.’ But the former is more frequently spelt ‘Socker.’”
So ‘soccer’, like ‘rugger’ and ‘fresher’ (a word meaning ‘freshman’ or recently arrived student) are words that all entered into widespread usage after being adopted by students at Oxford University. Another sporting word ‘cricker’ for cricket appears to have never featured outside of the slang used in public schools and universities of the late 19th century.
These words can be traced back even further, to Harrow School. An article in The Globe (22 October 1895) informs us: “The extensive use of the termination ‘er’ is now nearly twenty years old, though, circ. ann., 1875-6 it was confined to certain colleges, especially where Harrow men were in the ascendant. For the suffix ‘er,’ as the editor of ‘Isis’ [an Oxford University journal] correctly observes, hails from Harrow, the parent terms being ‘ducker’ and ‘footer.’”
The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (www.oed.com) provides us with examples of the first occasions some of these slang words appeared in print: ‘footer’ (1863), ‘fresher’ (1882), ‘socker’ (1885), ‘rugger’ (1889) and ‘brekker’ [breakfast] (1889).
Finally our investigation concludes with a brief review of the contents of the British newspaper Archive. The Optical Character Recognition system offers little help with tracing the earliest usage of ‘soccer’ simply because the presence of ‘soccer’ often appears in print as ‘success’ (or other words). ‘Socker’ is an easier term to search and to date the earliest reference I have traced is from The Star of the East, a Suffolk title, for 12 March 1888. Commenting on the Suffolk Cup final which took place at Ipswich’s Portman Road ground ‘Asterisk’ reported “Many ‘Rugger’ men went home this afternoon with a respect for ‘Socker’ that they had never felt before.” This, significantly, is an earlier reference to the use of ‘rugger’ than currently held by the OED. Note that ‘Socker’ was the original spelling. Almost all late 19th century references were found in one of three geographical regions: South West England (mostly Cornwall), South Wales and London (where most occur in relation university students at Oxford and Cambridge).
More specific searches produce a clearer picture. The Cornishman newspaper provides 12 references for ‘socker’ for 1893, but just one for 1895; in contrast there are no references to ‘soccer’ for 1893 and 17 for 1895. Thereafter ‘soccer’ is the preferred term. The British Newspaper Archive has a gap in its coverage of Athletic News, the main football (both rugby and association) newspaper of the time, between 1887 and 1899 unfortunately. For 1899 the term ‘socker’ is used 21 times and ‘soccer’ just once. From around 1903, however, ‘socker’ is rarely found and ‘soccer’ becomes the recognised spelling. ‘Footer,’ which must originally have referred to the specific game played at Harrow, later became a term to describe football generally and is the preferred informal term of Sporting Life newspaper in the mid 1890s, although ‘socker’ / ‘soccer’ and ‘rugger’ are also found.
In conclusion, we can identify that the first slang word still in modern use for football/soccer derives from Harrow School with the usage of the word ‘footer’ which first appears in print in 1863. The practise of shortening words, particularly in relation to athletic sports, then adding an ‘er’ suffix appears to have transferred from Harrow to Oxford University in the mid 1870s. Almost certainly words such as ‘socker’ and ‘rugger’ were in use before they were committed to print a decade later. The word ‘soccer’ was initially spelt ‘socker’ and as well as being in use amongst university students it was commonly used in geographical areas where the predominant code of football was rugby union (Cornwall, South Wales) in the 1890s. A spelling of ‘soccer’ rather than ‘socker’ became the recognised version of the word by the early 20th century and this word then spread into the general vocabulary of the game. Soccer has remained in the vocabulary of British football, and indeed, when the Players’ Union relaunched their magazine was titled: ‘Soccer: The Official Journal of the Football Players’ Union’. Soccer Star was for many years the most popular British weekly magazine devoted to the association game, and ran from 1952 until 1970.
So ‘soccer’ is a word that derives from the elite classes of Oxford University students in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is perhaps not surprising that ‘soccer’ is used instead of ‘football’ in the United States where another version of football (‘American football’) enjoys greater popularity, and probably for the same reasons as those newspapers in Cornwall and South Wales used ‘soccer’ back in the 1890s. It distinguishes association football from other more popular codes of the game in those areas. Nevertheless ‘soccer’ remains a word of British English origin and not American English.