My goal to learn something new every day
With Superbowl XLIX just a few hours away, I thought it apt for this post to be all about football. Note how I’m using the word on its own, without the ‘American’ prefix preferred by many of us Brits. I actually got into football about 5 years ago. Initially I got into the NFL mainly because I wanted to watch sports, but the English premier league doesn’t provide any option for people living abroad to pay to watch games legally. The NFL, however, does. I now use ‘football’ to talk about the American variety, and have switched to what American’s prefer to refer to the variety played in England: soccer. For consistency’s sake, I will use American football to refer to the American variety throughout this post.
Before I began to follow American football, I, like many other non-North Americans, would take pleasure in taking the piss out of the sport, suggesting that it be called handball as there was next to no kicking in it. That’s when I was more immature. Now of course, since becoming a fan, I find myself defending it at times. But it did get me thinking, why is it called football, when there really isn’t all that much kicking involved (of course kicking can play a big part of a game, and I’ve seen quite a few games decided by special teams’ field goals)?
To understand why it’s called football in North America, we need to understand the history of the sport in the region. Wikipedia has this to say on the history of American football:
The history of American football can be traced to early versions of rugby football and association football. Both games have their origin in varieties of football played in Britain in the mid-19th century, in which a football is kicked at a goal or run over a line.
American football began as a game between some of America’s most well-known universities: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers and the like. The first official game took place in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. The game was much different back then, and unlike today, the hands were not allowed. So in that way it was much more like soccer is today. For a few years, after that first game, many universities preferred to play with the soccer-style rules that didn’t allow touching with the hands. The main exception was Harvard who preferred to play a game more like rugby. When two players from Princeton saw a game at Harvard, they decided to introduce passing the ball with the hands at their university. From there, the rules began to change to become more similar to the game we see today. Considering that the game ultimately adopted a style of rules more similar to rugby, it could quite easily have been called rugby instead of football in America. It’s probably worth remembering, however, that rugby itself evolved out of a form of football, and was originally called rugby football.
So, while today, there’s not much contact between a player’s foot and the ball, the very first game, back in 1869 did include a lot more kicking. So, just like how language likes to adapt and develop over time, so do sports.