Verbal Energy

For American exceptionalists, why not 'socker' instead of soccer?

The Monitor's language columnist looks into the US term for what the rest of the world calls 'football.'

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It's all over but the shouting. Do they have Monday morning quarterbacks in soccer, too? It turns out that Paul, the prognosticating octopus in Germany, aka the psychic cephalopod, was correct in calling for Spain to win the World Cup.

Now inquiring minds want to know, why do Americans have a different name for this game than the rest of the world? And why do we spell it that way? And here's the really burning question for me: What's a double hard "c" before a front vowel doing in the middle of an English word?

It's not that I don't understand American exceptionalism. We Americans cling to miles, feet, and inches, while the rest of the world measures in metrics. We record temperatures in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius. And when we speak of the one sport whose World Cup really does engage the entire planet (as the World Series of baseball does not) we call it not football but soccer.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The idea that football should apply to several different games involving feet and a ball should seem no more unusual than the idea that house refers to several different types of dwellings, including brick row houses, brownstones, log cabins, adobes, bungalows, and yurts.

Soccer comes from "association football," the sport whose World Cup Spain has just won. It's the sport the whole world plays – except for those playing rugby, or Australian Rules football, or Canadian football.... But I digress.

Association isn't a word to make anyone's heart beat faster anyway. And that little syllable "soc" was not a lot to work with to develop a catchy nickname for a sport about to go global. How do you even pronounce "soc"? To rhyme with close (the adjective)? With gauche? A naming consultancy would have blown the whistle on that one.

But, as the Online Etymology Dictionary delicately notes, "they hardly could have taken the first three letters of Assoc." Instead, the long "o" somehow got shortened and the "c" got hardened. The result was the punchier-sounding "sock."

"Socca" was seen in print in 1889; two years later came "socker," and by 1895, "soccer" appeared. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that "er" often serves as a "suffix used to make jocular or familiar formations from common or proper names." Thus rugger, as an informal name for rugby, arose about the same time, 1893.

So soccer grew out of spare syllables rattling around in late 19th-century English speakers' heads, it would appear. But why didn't they stick with socker? The double "c" looks, well, not very English.

In English, a "c" is generally "soft" when it's followed by "e," "i," or "y," ("front vowels") as in cereal, city, or cycle. A "c" followed by a "back vowel" is typically "hard," as in cat, coat, or cut. That's a pattern native speakers follow naturally every day.

English also has a number of words, mostly derived from Latin, with a double "c" in the middle. When a back vowel follows, as in occur, the two "c's" are pronounced as one hard "c." When a front vowel follows, as in accident or success, the first "c" is hard and the second is soft. That's the rule "soccer" violates.

And so socker, however inglorious its origins, would be truer to the rules of English spelling, such as they are. And that spelling would have had – how shall I say? – more of a kick.

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