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Evolutionary and etymological history of football

Because the US-based National Football League has its championship game tomorrow, Kotaku has brought out, for the fourth year in a row, their article on the sport that is played by teams that are in the NFL.

The top scoring comment on this article, by tobythesandwich, is this image of two men playing a sport, with eight fairly simple words.

Illustration for article titled Evolutionary and etymological history of football

Meanwhile in the rest of the world... Football.

This comment is replied to by an even higher-scoring comment, this time by STLWizzle, which makes several claims:

In fact, in the early days of the sport among the upper echelons of British society, the proper term for the sport was “Soccer”. Not only that, but the sport being referred to as “Soccer” preceded the first recorded instance of it being called by the singular word “Football” by about 18 years.


Today’s topic: are the claims of STLWizzle correct?

What’s the earliest English usage of the word football?

Centuries before Britain existed. Several times during the 14th century common era, English authorities, up to and including the king, issued decrees banning football.


But was that “football” football?

Let’s just call it proto-football: it is ancestral to all of the various sports which are called football in the Anglophone world, but it’s not the same as any of them. There’s the possibility that it’s descended from some kind of Roman sport (which itself was descended from a Greek sport) but proving such an ancestor-descendant relationship is difficult. The easiest way to describe it is to, well, have people eight centuries ago describe it.

After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.
`William FitzStephen, 1174-1183


It’s a sport, played with younger people, in teams, with a ball that had to be placed (by differing means) into a goal “area” (although this area could be very large), and it attracted large audiences who watched.

By the sixteenth century at least, English writers, particularly Richard Mulcaster, were differentiating between “footeball” and “armeball” and “handball”: between sports that emphasized hand carrying or throwing a ball and sports that emphasized kicking a ball. This question of “can players use their hands to carry or throw the ball” is something that is very codified in 21st century sports, but in the sixteenth, seventeeth, and the eighteenth centuries there’s references to forms of football that do, and don’t, let players carry the ball.


When did rugby football fully speciate from proto-football?

The full divorce between rugby football and proto-football took place over several decades of the 19th century. There’s a lot of differing claims but it seems that rugby football was codified into a form semi-resembling its modern form by the 1840s. The first real formal organization of rugby teams was the Rugby Football Union, founded in 1871.


When did association football fully speciate from proto-football?

The full divorce between association football and proto-football was taking place at the same time. The earliest group that formed an association football codified ruleset was founded in 1863. It took the name The Football Association. And then the first organization that was created to create international rules for association football, the International Football Association Board, first met in 1886. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) was founded in 1904 and basically said that it would play by the rules that the IFAB had set up.


Where’d the word “soccer” come from?

It’s an abbreviation of sorts for association football and it first showed up in the 1880s. Usage of it is most common in countries where “football” is used to refer to a different sport.


When did American and Canadian football fully speciate from English football?

In the 1860s there were forms of football (with elements taken from both rugby football and association football) being played in both the United States and Canada. Walter Camp in the 1880s introduced changes to the rules that made American football into its own distinct sport in the US. Similarly, in 1903, Canadian football finally codified itself into a distinct sport influenced heavily by American football. The National Football League was previously known as the American Professional Football Association, and was formed in 1920, and the Canadian Football League was founded in 1958 in a fusion of several earlier football unions.


Is there a name to include both American and Canadian football?

Sure. Gridiron football.

So when did “association football” become just “football”?

Well. It kind of always was. Over the course of the 19th century rugby football and association football diverged in overall popularity and association football did a much better job at expanding into the non-Anglophone world. Organizations like FIFA contain that vestigial reference to association football, but most of the time when someone in the world (outside of the US and Canada) is talking about association football, they just call it ... football.


So a US football league called itself football after football was already named?

Yes. Oops?

So what sport is played in the Super Bowl?

Technically, American-rule gridiron football. Except that essentially no one in North America calls it that, and for sports there’s not much of a point in being technically correct about nomenclature if no one agrees that that is the correct nomenclature.


What’s the best way to resolve between four different sports called football?

(insert shrugging motion) I have no real suggestions here. Rugby football is frequently, and almost exclusively, called “rugby”, and people know what that word means, just by itself. But “football” means American-rule gridiron football in the US (and Canada, most of the time) and association football in most of the rest of the world (New Zealand, until recently, was a place where “football” meant rugby). “Soccer” as an singular word for association football is used in quite a few Anglophone countries but around large stretches of the world that word is either not used or in much less circulation than “football”. The “easiest” solution is to have gridiron football change its name, but, uh, good luck on that.



No that neologism isn’t really helpful unless the US and Canada suddenly lose their minds and decide they’d rather call their sport handegg.

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