The War of Words


Sometimes I forget that most people don’t know me aside from the public personae that I offer through my social media. I’d like to offer a short bio of myself, emphasizing the aspect pertinent to the eventual point of this article. So I was raised in a very religious, conservative family setting which involved private schools and lots of church time. While those elements of my childhood didn’t contribute to my overall academic success (specifically science and history, which were grossly distorted to fit a specific agenda), there was a massive focus on reading and language development. I was allowed to read just about anything I wanted. I’ll never forget picking up a copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at the age of 13 and trying to puzzle out the meaning of the story and its monstrous vermin. I read voraciously throughout my childhood, through my college years. After attending a couple of hilarious years of ministerial school (which ended with me being kicked out), I eventually went to a branch of the University of Texas and completed my degree in English with minors in History and Philosophy.

Not pictured, Franz Kafka

Not pictured, Franz Kafka

Upon graduation I went into the workforce and held several jobs, but missed the academic life. So about 10 years ago, I decided to enroll in the graduate program at UT-El Paso and work to get my degree in Rhetoric. Before you ask “What’s rhetoric?” I’ll say that this question is always asked of students prior to the starting of the semester. My answer is “rhetoric is the study of words and phrases and how they are used. Rhetoric looks for the hidden meanings in word, searching for motivations and goals.” Suffice to say, I never finished my course of study, having to deal with a divorce just two classes from completion of my degree. So while I do not have a degree in Rhetoric, I studied it and it shapes the way I think about words and word choices.

All that brings me today. I posted on our social media looking for clubs that owned their own fields. That is the subject of an article I’m currently researching, and crowd-sourcing information is one of the best parts of social media. Cat videos are of course the other. While I did receive a large number of responses (thank you), I also go a response that triggered this article:

“Fields are for farmers, it’s a pitch.”

A Lesson in Etymology

So let’s play that game. The word pitch, meaning a playing field, comes from cricket actually. Apparently, and I am no expert on cricket, the match begins when the “pitching of stumps” into the ground. Over time, that was shortened and changed to “pitch” meaning a playing field. By the early 1900s, pitch was almost entirely used for a soccer field. All of that, of course, applies to England. In the United States, we don’t play cricket and have no long history associated with the game. Because of this, the word “field” works just fine. We’ve long used the word to describe where a game is played. In fact, check the dictionary - “a piece of land used for a particular purpose, especially an area marked out for a game or sport.” Its synonym, according to google? Pitch.

This conversation about pitch vs. field leads us directly to the other term battle adored by those on social media - “soccer” vs. “football.” If you’re interested in this, we have a wonderful scholarly paper on this subject entitled “It’s Football not Soccer”. Written by Stefan Szymanski of the University of Michigan, the paper delves deep into the history of the two words: their roots, their meanings, and their usage. Shocker, apparently the word “soccer” is British. During the late 1800s, when both soccer and rugby were on the rise in the country, there was a desire to draw stronger distinctions between rugby football game and association football (as soccer was known). To do that, Rugby was referred to by the abbreviation, “Rugger,” while association football was shortened to “Soccer.” When the term crossed over the ocean to our beloved United States, it was perfect for our situation. We had another sport on the rise which used the name football and needed a term that would distinguish the other sport. So soccer rose in popularity.

Association Football? Probably.

Association Football? Probably.

The reality that some refuse to accept is that soccer was used in England for most of the 20th century as another name for football. That was the case until the early 1980s, when the soccer began to be viewed as an “American term.” For those purists of the game in our mother country, it was not fitting to use a term they felt was foreign (though in reality it wasn’t) for a game that they had created. And so the backlash against soccer was born.

The Why

So now we’re in the age of social media. Someone uses the phrase “soccer” or “field” and immediately is scolded for their lack of sophistication and their corrupted understanding of the game. The rhetorician in me (sadly without a degree) wants to know why. Why do people feel the need to correct it. Even Americans correct each other on the “proper” usage of the term. Why? I cannot answer for every person but I have a theory or two.

  1. The “football” they love or the league they follow is in another country, typically the EPL or Bundesliga. If they listen to the announcers of the matches they watch, football means a specific thing. If they discuss the game on social media with other supporters of the club who live in another country, football means the sport they are discussing. They grew up in the United States, but the football they watch lives elsewhere and they want to strengthen that connection to the game they love.

  2. It’s a reaction against their own country. Not everyone who lives in the United States thinks this country is #1 (U-S-A, U-S-A). I’m a woke individual, I have some issues with our country also. If you’ve grown up in this country and had American sports shoved down your throat for 20-40 years, is there anything better than taking the “football” away from the meat and potatoes types with their Budweiser shirts and MAGA hats? It’s the ultimate middle finger to a sport that is the most watched sport in the country and symbolizes so much of what is wrong with the United States (from their perspective).

  3. Everyone wants to sound smart. “Soccer” sounds like something your kid plays on Saturday mornings, “football” is Messi and Ronaldo.

  4. It’s the internet and people can’t help themselves. This final one will sound like an old guy yelling at the tv, but it has to be said. We all go on social media allow our worst versions of ourselves to come out. We lash out with words and phrases we’d never say to someone’s face because WE CAN. This is one more tool in the arsenal of the soccer fan to crush those that disagree.

Edward Schiappa, probably not thinking about soccer.

Edward Schiappa, probably not thinking about soccer.

One of my favorite rhetoricians is Edward Schiappa. Dr. Schiappa was at MIT last I checked, but the theory that really sunk into my brain as I studied the subject was his discussion of defining. Definitions are not rigid things. They change over time, sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally. One of his key points was that definition requires someone who has “the right to define.” I can tell you that killing animals is wrong, painting your house green is a crime against architecture, drinking milk before bed is gross, or that soccer should be called football - all of those statements are my opinion and without the power to enforce them they won’t have much effect. One the other hand, if a government says that something is unlawful, we must accept that definition or suffer the punishment of that governments power. That is the right to define.

Solving the Problem

But back to social media and screaming at each other about soccer vs. football, pitch vs. field, kit vs. jersey, the list could go on and on. The reality is that the words we choose have motivations attached to them and those motivations are rooted in the person making the argument. You can blow me up for being an American and calling the sport soccer, but why are you doing that? It’s the naming convention that’s accepted by the vast majority of the country I live in and I accept it. I’ll confess, I used the word field on purpose. I choose to say soccer with intent. I am the editor of an American soccer website. Using another term for the sport would fly in the face of logic. If I were the editor of a website that focused on British soccer, maybe I’d have to rethink that choice, but I don’t.

What we can all learn from this is maybe words shouldn’t have as much meaning as we give them. Let’s accept that words have different meanings in different context and environments. Maybe we should also be honest about where our motivations are coming from but also embrace the truth about where words originate. Most importantly, we’re all in this together and tearing down other people may seem fun, but, in the end, you’re alone. And you can’t play soccer, or football, alone.

- Dan Vaughn