U.S. students spending a year abroad always sound different when they come back. Whether it’s the boy who comes back from England bragging about getting “pissed” or the girl returning from France who can’t resist her urge to correct her friends’ pronunciation of each and every French-derived word in common use (quelle horreur!), both will blush with pride when their friends note their new way of speaking. The inevitable response? “I guess I couldn’t help picking up an accent!”
Such linguistic malleability is understandable, especially in the young, but also for any of us who spend our time surrounded by people who speak a certain way. We’re natural mimics, and when we routinely hear vowels pronounced differently, or sentences falling at the end instead of rising, we’re likely to do the same. We’re also social animals, and our desire to be accepted by others, to not sound like uncouth, uncultured Americans naturally leads us to try to blend in to what we see as the more cultured cultures. Call it the Stockholm Syndrome of speech.
Unfortunately, most Americans who want to pass for British come no closer than did the members of Spinal Tap; most Americans who want to pass for French come no closer than Inspector Clouseau. (Somewhere, someone is reading this and saying to themselves, “Wait, Nigel Tufnel had a bad accent?”) To be fair, almost all Europeans who try out an American accent end up sounding Texan—but then again, they’re not trying to “pass.” They’re making fun of us.
In time, the foreign-exchange students lose their accents. It may be that they can’t take the teasing, or that they begin to feel slightly ridiculous. Or it may be that, surrounded once again by the flat, nasal tones of their Midwestern compatriots, their ears are reattuned. The process usually takes no more than a week or two but, for the especially stubborn, may last until their college-entrance interviews.
U.S. soccer fans are, in a way, like foreign-exchange students. Though U.S. soccer has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and despite its dominance as a participation sport, fans of the game are still, to some degree, outsiders in American culture, still choosing a foreign experience in place of the rituals recognized by their friends and neighbors. Many of us spend vast amounts of time watching games played in foreign countries, commentated upon by foreigners, and reading sports journalism written by and for people from other places. Many of us even have friends among these Others.
People for whom soccer is not soccer but football.
This creates a conundrum for the Americans fan of English (or Spanish, or German, or, God help them, Italian) soccer. Do we forgo the word “soccer” and use “football,” allowing us to appear more cultured and continental to those whose approval we crave? Or do we tough it out with “soccer”?
Football confuses our compatriots, soccer submits us to mild but survivable embarrassment, and “American football” straight up makes us sound like wankers.
Personally, I love the word “football.” It makes sense because the game is played with the feet. It’s the word most commonly used in the sports journalism I most often read. It just plan sounds better—and “soccer” sounds so hideous when pronounced by English people mocking our Texan accents.
(And the American game of football? Played with the hands. Throwball. Catchball. Carryball. Yes, there is occasional kicking, and quite a bit of running, but there’s probably more running in basketball than football, and no one is suggesting we rename that.)
Yet, as wrong as the American use of the word football may be, we’ve been doing it wrong for quite some time, and it’s as American as mom, apple pie, and staggering wealth inequality. It’s ours, and, you really can’t be a foreign-exchange student in your own country. If my choice is between “football,” “soccer,” and using “American football” to differentiate from proper English football, I will stick with soccer. “Football” confuses our compatriots, “soccer” submits us to mild but survivable embarrassment, and “American football” straight up makes us sound like wankers.
One English fan helpfully suggested that I call the sport I love “English football,” which, I mean, come on. Another suggested that I use “Premier League,” which is a point of view so myopic it’s practically American. Is that the only brand of the beautiful game worth watching?
Please note that I am speaking exclusively about American-born American residents for whom English is a primary language. If you are from, say, Birmingham, you are obviously welcome to use “football” or even “American football” with impunity. (Although I’ve been told that American football is sometimes called gridiron by those jolly chaps across the pond.)
Americans can make the argument that soccer is actually an English term, which it is, derived from “association football” which was the term used to distinguish the fledgling game from the fledgling game of rugby. We can even point out that there is an English TV show called Soccer Saturday, for crying out loud, meaning that there isn’t complete unanimity even there—but there’s no point in doing it. Football has taken over England, and most of the world (futbol, fussball, etc.). As we mock-Texans say, that horse has left the barn.
Do I like saying soccer? Not really. In my early days of fandom, I sometimes found myself slipping and saying “football”—and, once, even “American football”—but I realized my football-, baseball-, and basketball-fan friends were looking at me the way I’d once looked at a particularly pretentious foreign-exchange student who’d returned from abroad with a particularly haughty attitude and a packet of allegedly charming new slang terms.
My point is not that we should submit to the majority out of fear of ostracism. My point is that language is supposed to make communication easier, not more difficult, so why not use the term most of us grew up with? If we want to help the sport become more popular in the U.S., why alienate potential converts by using a code word they don’t feel comfortable with?
I may be a fan of a team that plays in a foreign league, but I am an American. And, until that wonderful day when soccer pushes football to the margins, making the terms “American football” or “gridiron” necessary to distinguish it from the game played with twenty-two players and a round ball, I’ll use the American term: soccer.
Now, you heard the gaffer—let’s get out on the pitch and get this bloody game started!