Now that the 2014 FIFA World Cup is underway, one persistent language question rears its ugly head yet again: what is the proper English word for that “global round-ball game” being played by teams from 32 countries in Brazil until July 13? Is it “football” or “soccer”?

The Atlantic reports that according to sports economist Stefan Syzmanski of the University of Michigan, the term “soccer” is not an American invention. Rather, it has its origin in England and was imported to the US.

According to Syzmanski, the history of the word begins in 1863, when young men met in an English pub to standardize the rules for the sport. Two divergent variants of the game were developed, one known as “Rugby Football” or “‘rugger”, the other as “Association Football”, or “‘soccer” for short.

By 1905, the word had made its way into American English, as a letter to the editor of the New York Times shows. “In the first place, there is no such word [as socker],” the angry letter from one Francis Tabor states, “and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.”

The curious thing: the more popular “soccer” became in the U.S., the less the English wanted to use it. As a map at The Atlantic shows, the word is now generally used in countries that have another sport called “football.”

We’ll leave you with John Cleese,  who explains it in the most basic terms: “It is a game played with a ball that is struck with the foot. Hence: foot-ball. Are you following this, America? The clue is in the title. It is not that difficult.”

The Global Round-Ball Game: Why Americans Call Soccer “Soccer”
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