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What Does Football Mean?

Updated on November 15, 2010
Is this a football?  (Photo by Shannon Pifko)
Is this a football? (Photo by Shannon Pifko)
Or is this?
Or is this?

Which game is truly "football"? Are the Americans -- the majority English-speaking group, in this case -- right to call their game football? Or is the British national obsession the properly-named game? (I'm leaving Australia out of this; you guys are just confusing!)

Being a logical person, I decided to research the etymology of the word "football" and its usages throughout history. What was it originally intended to mean? Who came first and in the most sensible way? This way, we can decide who's got it right.

(Disclaimer: While I am American, I hold no preference between American "football" and rest-of-the-world "football;" they're both pretty much equally boring to me.)

Where Did the Word Start?

The first recorded definition of "football" came in 1532. (Yes, the United States weren't around yet, but don't get too cocky yet, Brits.) Because what did it mean? "Something idly kicked around." Pretty vague.

And while it may seem that "football" would imply a ball kicked by a foot, that is quite possibly a false etymology (or just jumping to conclusions). In fact "football" was used to refer to games played by peasants in medieval Europe, which were played on foot (as opposed to games where players had to ride horses, which were played by aristocrats).

These games played on foot did not necessarily include kicking. "Football" didn't refer to any one specific game, though, and many of them explicitly banned kicking.

Of course, almost all the sports we play today are "on foot" so the history doesn't stop there.

Football's Evolution

William Hone, an English writer, wrote a description of a game called "Foot-Ball" that was played in Scotland. A player would run towards one end of the field (carrying the ball) until an opponent overtook him. At this point, the player could try to break away from his opponent or pass the ball to a teammate. If the opponent could wrestle the ball from the player, that opponent would try to run towards the other end of the field.

Sounds a lot like American football, doesn't it?

(Okay, maybe it sounds like rugby, too...)

But this was just in Scotland. Down in England, the ball stayed on the ground as the game evolved into a sport, keeping more with the style of the Romans. Cambridge cemented those rules around 1848, and the sport continued to evolve into what it has become today.

So Where Did American Football Come From?

The first collegiate game of American football was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, but it probably didn't look much like football, more like rugby with pads, and the rules were more similar those of soccer.

The rematch at Princeton just a week later, though, with Princeton's home team rules looked much more like true American football. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first time they called that game "football" was in 1881.

Who Wins?

It looks like England called it "football" first, guys. Feel free to thank Cambridge for writing those rules down a good 35 years before Princeton did.

To be fair, though, America wasn't the first to pick the ball up off the ground. Clearly someone from Scotland brought the game over that way, neglecting to mention that there was a whole other alternative going on in England.

I say we blame Scotland for the mix-up.

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Wait... Why "Soccer"?

This is my favorite part! After all this research, I asked myself, "Well where the hell did they get 'soccer' from, then?" Maybe if you see it like this:

  • Socca (1889)
  • Socker (1891)
  • Soccer (1895)

No, it has nothing to do with socks. It's an abbreviation of "association football" (as opposed to rugby football). The term was coined by a Cambridge student who saw that you obviously could not abbreviate it by taking the first three letters of "association" but wanted a shorter way to say it.

Well there you have it. I think I've solved the football vs football vs soccer argument quite nicely for you all. Clearly Americans should start calling things by their proper names, though I'm not sure what we should be calling American football? I'll work on that one.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Americans should call it Hand Ball, that would make sence.

    • premierkj profile image


      8 years ago from Republic of Ireland

      People are far too sensitive about these things. If an American says Soccer in England they will be insulted. If an Englishman says it, nobody will even notice. The most popular show in England is called 'Soccer AM'. Then you also have Gilette Soccer Saturday. The problem with a lot of people is that they misinterpret on purpose. When an American says Football it should be assumed they are referring to American Football.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The comment about a handling game in Scotland being classified as 'foot ball' is actually misleading. Hone is mistakenly refering to an ancient Shrove Tuesday event known as the Ba' of Scone as a game of football. The original reference to this peculiar game comes from the Old Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99). The game is not referred to as football in this contemporary account. It is known as the 'ball of Scone'. Handball existed in Scotland as well as football and the generic title of Ba' or Ball Games can lead to confusion. Hone quite clearly was confused - the rugby form of 'football' did not come to Scotland until 1851 when it was adopted by Edinburgh Academy (source - FP Magoun Jnr, Scottish Popular Football 1424 - 1815, American Historical Review, Oct 1931).

    • El Kap profile image

      El Kap 

      8 years ago

      A very thorough article. It's quite interesting to note that in the UK where we insist on calling it "Football", and generally detest the word "Soccer", the main football programme watched by all football fans who can't make it to a game on a Saturday is Sky Sport's "Soccer Saturday", and of course we have the legendary "Soccer AM". Indeed we also have shops such as "Sports Soccer" selling football kit and gear.

      Well, "Football Saturday" just isn't very marketable is it?

    • profile image

      john wedlock 

      9 years ago

      Good article, but just some points to note: The term 'Football' was in use by 1314 in England, however this was in it's Latin form. By 1486 it was recorded in English. The term 'Soccer' was coined by Charles Wreford Brown, an England International footballer. He went to Oxford University and not Cambridge as stated in your article. The term never caught on with the Brits who preferred 'Football', 'Footie' or 'Footer' (this last one is not very commonly used these days). You say that carrying the ball was just in Scotland. This is incorrect as there were many different kicking and carrying games all over the British Isles dating back hundreds of years. You say that the second game between Princeton and Rutgers looked much more like true American Football. Princeton rules in the 1860s was nothing like modern American Football, in fact when their rules were drawn up in 1867, it was said to be Association Football rules but with 25-a-side. The first intercollegiate rules were drawn up on the 19th October 1873, and again was based on Association Football. However by 1875 Harvard and Yale were playing to modified Rugby rules, Harvard learnt these from playing McGill University of Montreal in 1874. From 1880 rules were changed to suit the teams, American Football's evolution from Rugby was considered complete by 1912.

      In reply to Peter Petterson, Webb Ellis wouldn't have been playing soccer, as soccer didn’t even exist in 1823, if anything he would have been playing an earlier form of football. Most sports historians now believe that the William Webb Ellis story is nothing but a myth. Let’s have a look at why. The story first appeared in 1876, four years after Webb Ellis had died. Matthew Bloxham, who had left the school two years before it was supposed to have happened, wrote a letter to the school magazine regarding the incident, and had heard the story from an un-named source. There is no other evidence to support this. As far as anyone knows, Webb Ellis never claimed that he invented the game. In truth, carrying the ball in the arms at Rugby School developed over a period of years, most likely gaining acceptance in the 1830s, it wasn't legalised until 1841-42, by Bigside Levee, and then finally by the rules of 1846. Association Football has always been known as Football, not sure where you get this idea that from the last World Cup they have tried to annex the name. And regarding New Zealand, where I come from, Association Football is the most played sport, and most football fans and players refer to the game as Football, it is only the followers of the two rugby codes that in the main call it soccer. Football followers are not trying to annex the name in NZ, the New Zealand Football Association was formed in 1891, a year before the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. I take it from your last sentence, you have some sort of problem with fans of Association Football.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I guess anything that involves kicking a ball with a foot can be called football!

      I am English and a Football fan, the English meaning! I am not the slightest bit bothered about the Americans calling football Soccer. As long as they call it football in England and as long as they acknowledge that 95% of the world all it football, there is no problem!

    • profile image

      peter petterson 

      9 years ago

      The carrying of a ball was credited to players at Rugby College where one webb ellis picked up the ball and ran during a game of soccer. The rugby World cup is also the Webb Ellis trophy.

      At the last Soccer world cup and since the promoters of the round ball game have tried to annex the name of FOOTBALL when the round ball game is really Association Football, hence the abbreviated name of SOCCER.

      In New zealand, the home of the legendary All Blacks rugby team, (we don't call it rugby union, that is what rugby league players want to call rugby, even if it is technically correct)football is a general term for all codes of football. The general population still calls soccer SOCCER, but the supporters are trying to annex the name here. In Australia you have AFL(Aussie rules, derived from Gaelic Football in Ireland; rugby union and rugby league. In North America you have American Football, or Gridiron. There is also the abbreviated game of Sevens, from Rugby, now a global game. There is Touch, a non-contact form of football played by both rugby and league players during summer - it has representative, and international games between NZ and Australia.

      Hey folks! All our codes are FOOTBALL and the socer poofs can go to .....happy hunting ground!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      americans should call it gridiron

    • helenathegreat profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Manhattan

      LOL I know, Lissie, but Americans can't call it "American football," and that's quite long anyway...

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      ROTFL - the rest of the world calls in American football!


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