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I know that the game which is called "football" in Europe is called "soccer" in the U.S. But I wonder to what extent this differentiation is strict. What do people from England call their favorite game in conversations with Americans? Is there a misunderstanding in this case?

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An Englishman has once told me that only football made sense to him. obviously making fun of Americans: "Football is the sport that you play with your feet. Soccer should be the sport that you play with... with your socks." –  b.roth Aug 23 '10 at 13:47
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@Bruno: that fella probably went on to draw this picture. That being said, making fun of Americans seems to be a very popular sport in Britain, give or take football. –  RegDwigнt Nov 2 '10 at 16:10
    
@Bruno - actually, if we want to be accurate, 'kickball' is the best term. "Football" is not accurate because you can also head the ball, but mostly what happens is the ball is kicked around. Because of this, 'Soccer' is a more accurate term because it doesn't limit the ball to interaction with only one body part. –  bev Nov 30 '10 at 7:21
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@bev - there is no hate in that joke. I know that sometimes "jokes" can be offensive (in which case they should be avoided), but it's definitely not the case here. –  b.roth Nov 30 '10 at 9:14
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I think I speak for most Americans when I say that we hadn't noticed that the Brits were insulting us. We don't really care what Europeans think about anything. :-) –  Jay May 9 '12 at 19:51
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6 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

First is a point of order—it's also frequently called "soccer" in South Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among other English-speaking places.

The Wikipedia article on the topic is "Association football", which is the full formal name of the sport—its governing body FIFA stands for "Fédération Internationale de Football Association", which in English is "International Federation of Association Football". If you want to be perfectly unambiguous, just call it "association football", and you can be sure that almost no one will know just what you mean.

In my experience as an American, when English people are discussing soccer they call it "football" and when it becomes apparent there may be some confusion they clarify by calling it "real football", which is delightfully arrogant.

However, once it's been clarified which sport is being discussed, we Americans are perfectly capable of understanding they mean "soccer" when they say "football".

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In New Zealand, "Soccer" is falling rapidly, and most media use "Football". The Wikipedia section about New Zealand is a bunch of unqualified BS. "Football" has never referred to Rugby League, which is known ONLY as "Rugby" or "Rugby League". Some of the more traditional papers (such as NZ Herald) refer to it as "Soccer" 60% of the time, but the majority of papers, refer to soccer as "football". This can be quickly checked by doing a Google search on the site stuff.co.nz which encompasses almost every paper in New Zealand. In cities, "Football" is more common. In small towns, "Soccer" –  Vincent McNabb Aug 10 '10 at 8:26
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Yes, my understanding is that "soccer" is transitioning to "football" in Australia and New Zealand, but my point is that "soccer" is not exclusively an Americanism and it enjoys substantial usage in many English-speaking countries, if not overwhelming majority usage like it does in the U.S. –  nohat Aug 10 '10 at 18:23
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In Australia, football or "footy" will almost always mean Australian Rules Football. Soccer is almost always called soccer (unless you're a pom) but we know it is called football elsewhere. –  Evan Aug 23 '10 at 4:22
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It is "real football". We coined the term long before you Americans did! :) –  Noldorin Aug 30 '10 at 13:26
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@Noldorin: You also coined the term "soccer", yet you still refuse to use it... –  mmyers Nov 2 '10 at 0:19
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I'm neither British nor American, but I'm fairly sure most Britons know about the word "soccer", so there wouldn't be big misunderstandings while visiting America even when they prefer to call the sport "football" themselves.

I imagine they might utter some clarification ...

They were playing football – oh, that's soccer for you guys – yesterday.

...and probably some clever or slightly condescending remark about the fact that a different word is used. Or maybe even a little rant, like this one by John Cleese. ;-)

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I like the example of this condescending attitude ("real football") in nohat's answer :) –  Jonik Aug 29 '10 at 22:37
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Some people need to be condescending. It's the prime indicator of an inferiority complex. Rather than get angry, it's more humane to try to empathize and help those with this mental problem. –  bev Nov 30 '10 at 7:31
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@bev:I think (hope!) you misunderstand the nature of the humour. It is common between groups that have a lot in common to have a good-natured rivalry - such as that between Oxford and Cambridge in the UK: many from each university will make disparaging remarks about the other, that to an outsider or one who doesn't understand the joke may appear incredibly rude/condescending - but the surface rudeness hides a kind of mutual respect. I have friends from the US whom I tease about "soccer" among other things - and they in turn tease me about my British foibles (such as putting a "u" in "humour"!) –  psmears Feb 21 '11 at 21:03
    
@psmears - thank you. I am familiar with the sort of humour you outline. I participate in it frequently. Another sort of humour is sarcasm, which I employed in my comment. Unfortunately for me, without the eye-roll or the sarcasm laced delivery, it's difficult sometimes to detect it. Maybe it's a question of how dry to make written wit. Clearly I misjudged here. –  bev Mar 1 '11 at 23:32
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Incidentally, there is a growing contingent of soccer leagues in the States that are going with the European name, but not writing 'football'. Instead, they write 'futbol'- ( eteamz.com/ecsc ) –  bev Mar 1 '11 at 23:36
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The name soccer is derived from Association Football in the same way that rugger is derived from Rugby Football. In other words, it has its origin in the upper class slang of boys' boarding schools. For this reason, among others, many English people dislike that name.

I wrote a little taxonomy of football, which I'll attempt to reproduce here:

The insets are descendants, not varieties.

  • Association Football (soccer)
  • Rugby Football (rugger)
    • American Rules Football
    • Canadian Rules Football
  • Gaelic Football (Gaelic)
    • Australian Rules Football
    • International/Compromise Rules Football
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Australian Rules football is in no way a descendant of Gaelic football. It was mostly descended from English public school games with maybe a bit of Marn-Grook thrown in. –  chimp Dec 15 '10 at 9:28
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+1 for pointing out that "rugger" and "soccer" are both English upper-class boarding-school slang. Good enough reason not to use them if you ask me, but a powerful illustration of the influence a small group of people can have on world language! –  AAT May 16 '11 at 14:44
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My understanding of the etymology is that "football" was originally a general classification for the ball games played by "the foot". "The foot" is a mediaeval / early modern term for those who couldn't afford a horse; you still see it in military writing where an army will be described as "ten thousand foot and two thousand horse" or whatever.

There were hundreds of varieties of mediaeval football, frequently being one village against a neighbour, or one half of a village against the other. They are often referred to as "mob football". Most of them included holding the ball in hand.

The development of formal rules in the nineteenth century saw various splits - at first between those who allowed players to advance the ball in hand (rugby) and those who required a player who caught a ball to stand still and drop-kick it (association).

Over time, association football banned all use of the hand, other than by the goalkeeper within a defensive area, while rugby developed into more and more of a handling game. American and Canadian football are two independent developments from proto-rugby (ie from the uncodified handling games before the Rugby Football Union codified the sport).

Rugby split into rugby union and rugby league in 1889, and the dominant game in an area gets known as simply "rugby" and the other will be "league" or "union". League is dominant in the North of England (the counties of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmorland) and in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT in Australia; Union in the rest of England, throughout Wales, Scotland and Ireland, in the rest of Australia and throughout New Zealand and South Africa.

In Ireland, Gaelic football was a codification of a distinctively Irish game, while in Australia, an interaction between uncodified proto-Gaelic football and the availability of large cricket grounds produced the distinctive Australian Rules football.

In most places, the dominant code of football became known as simply "football", while the other codes had to adopt qualified names (so you have "American Football", known as such in Europe).

"Soccer" and "rugger" were Oxford University (ie upper-class) student slang for Association Football and Rugby Football in the late nineteenth century, and soccer was popularised as an alternative name for the sport, especially in places where another code had monopolised the "football" word. It's widely used in Britain for "association football", either to make clear which code is being referred to (go to one of the rugby towns and you'll hear "soccer" a lot) or for reasons of euphony (e.g. the TV programme "Soccer AM"). But, of course, "football" alone usually refers to association football in Britain.

In a context where it's clear, "football" can be used to refer to any code. In rugby commentaries on TV in England, a team might well be described as "playing beautiful flowing football", without any implication of the association game.

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I live in Melbourne, Australia and there's this sport called Footy which is believed to be "the real football"! Irony of it is that they mostly hand pass the ball (good guess, it's not round!) and sometimes kick it around the field as well!

So, whenever they talk football here, visitors usually don't have any idea what they are talking about.

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DifferenceBetween.net says that

In different football games, the players can use the hands, feet, or whole body to move the ball, while in soccer only the feet can be used.

And one answer from the Answers.Com says

Football is the official name for soccer. Soccer comes from association football. Football is a sport played with the feet and a ball. Some countries call football soccer [USA, canada] but football is the official and global name for football. American football is known as gridiron and does not involve controlling the ball with your feet.

One answer from Yahoo Answers says:

Every goal in soccer is just ONE goal (one point) and for football, in Football there are touchdowns (6 points), field goals (3 points) and safeties (2 points). The matches in soccer last longer than in a football game (2 periods of 45 minutes each vs. 4 periods of 15 minutes each). As you can see, there are similarities in both like the use of words like penalty, goal, both have 11 players... but there are very different between them. More information go to wikipedia... A funny thing is that the word "football" is applied to Rugby football (Rugby union and Rugby league), American football, Australian rules football, Gaelic football and Canadian football.

Ref: 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soccer 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_football

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The New Oxford American Dictionary reports that the origin of the word soccer is a shortening of association football. I have been used to say American football to mean the sport played in America, and soccer to mean the sport where only a player can touch the ball with his hands. –  kiamlaluno Aug 13 '10 at 13:36
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