As an American, friends abroad have always challenged me on the name of the game that’s played at FIFA’s World Cup. Even before having debates with British folks about the term “soccer,” though, I’ve always found the word confusing and counter-intuitive. So I thought I’d look into it. Here’s what I found.
The word “football” doesn’t actually have to do with the fact that you use your “foot” to kick it. The British aristocrats of a few centuries ago used to play games on horses. Poor British folks, on the other hand, didn’t own horses and instead played games in which they ran around on the field—they played games ‘on foot’. In fact, the FIFA game we know today was just one of the many games that the poor folks used to play “on foot.” In other words, there were a number of different “footballs,” i.e. different rules for playing ball on foot. These came to be called rugby, Australian rules football, Canadian football, Irish football, American football, etc.
In the 1860s, these ‘football games’ were adopted by Britain’s rising middle class and organized by different educational institutions and clubs into associations that codified the rules and standardized the games. Two sets of rules that were codified were (1) ‘rugby’ football and (2) ‘associational’ football.
‘Rugby Rules Football’ was named after the school that codified the rules, Rugby School in Warwickshire. These folks preferred the type of football in which you could use your hands, and apparently beat people up. British folks in the UK kept the name ‘Rugby,’ while British and Irish colonists in America came to call Rugby Football simply ‘football’, hence the later, modified, admittedly watered down “American football” and “Gaelic Football” (both of which are closer to Rugby).
Associational Football, on the other hand, was the more popular one, named after The Football Association in 1863, and was the name of the game whose rules didn’t allow using your hands—the thing that’s played by most countries in the FIFA World Cup today. Its technical name was “Association Rules Football”. Some folks in the UK called it “soc”cer because it followed the rules of ‘associational’ football. These folks later went to America, Ireland, Canada, (South Africa at one point), and other places where the game is called “soccer” today. (Even in Japan they say “sakka” because of the American influence). But most people in the UK shortened the term “associational football” to just ‘football’. What you called it depended on where in the British Isles you were from, and what club/association/school/institution you played with—or who introduced you to the game. (Other football rules were codified by different institutions in different parts of the British Isles and North America).
So while the word ‘soccer’ doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense anymore, the word ‘football’ isn’t really accurate or precise, since it technically includes other games played ‘on foot’ and not on horse. Meanwhile, American Football is football in the same way that association rules football is football; they’re both played on foot, by running around the field.
But since the UK was the imperial power at the time, British sailors and officers went around the world, playing their game with ‘association rules football’ rules and calling it “football.” So the name stuck.
In some places where associational rules football became popular, it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the ball is kicked with the foot. “Fútbol” in Spanish, for example, is just an indigenization of the English word “football.” The Spanish words for foot and ball (pie/ped/pata and pelota) don’t sound anything like “foot” or “ball”. Same with Turkish, which also calls it “futbol.” In other places, they calqued the word “football,” translating it as “foot” and “ball”. In Arabic, the word is “kurat al-qadam” (kurat meaning ball, qadam meaning foot); in Greek it’s podosphero (podo= foot, sphero = sphere/ball); and so forth.
International usage of the word “football” for associational football put pressure on places like Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland (where the word ‘football’ conventionally meant ‘rugby’) to adopt the global norm more recently. The word “football” became ubiquitous worldwide when it was standardized by the Zurich-based Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—and even there, the French word has nothing to do with a foot or a spherical object.
So there you go, everyone is right!