Know It All: Why is American Football Called “Football”?

No aspect of American football is more confusing than its only-occasionally-accurate moniker.

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

Why is American football called “football”?

One of the most confounding labels still prominent in major sports is that associated with America’s most popular sport, football (that’s “American football” or “gridiron” to all you non-Americans): why is a sport that predominantly has nothing to do with the foot (the measurements aren’t even in feet) called “football”? And while we’re on the subject, what’s the history of the term “soccer” serving for “football” in America? Lace up your cleats.

First, a quick history of soccer/football: the original form of the game was not like the sport we know today. The game was rather different (in short, it was like a less organized form of what we now know as rugby) and it wasn’t until several iterations later – at some point in the 19th century – that football resembled its current form.

One of the most crucial moments in the history of football was when the primitive form of football (the mutant form of rugby), underwent a few changes to the rulebook that focused on making the use of hands illegal. As you might expect, this was a pretty big deal within the football community and as a result of these changes, a splintering occurred and that led to the creation of “rugby football” where the use of hands was permitted. Rugby football soon became quite popular around the world and it was from this new form of football that American football (the sport with quarterbacks and the weird-shaped ball) originally evolved. Why the creators of American football didn’t bother to borrow on the “rugby” name and/or come up with a completely original name, we can only speculate.

As for the term “soccer”, it’s actually European in origin, not American. Before the widespread rule changes mentioned above, the title “Association Football” was applied to the “no hands” form of football to distinguish it from things like rugby. “Soccer” became a slang form of “association” and lingered in Europe until rugby and football became two distinct sports with different names; the term “soccer” is now mainly only used in America and Canada (where American and Canadian Football are more popular).

Now you know.

Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind's molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten!. For even more information about him, check out his website.

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  • Megan Abott

    thanks, this will shut my boyfriend up when he nexts goes on about soccer x
    .-= Megan Abott´s last blog ..Barca Stay top of La Liga =-.

  • rostu

    I have spent years wondering this. You have answered a question that has been bugging me for a long time.
    .-= rostu´s last blog ..World Cup 2010 =-.

  • Soccer Merchandise

    Great article many thanks this answered alot of questions i have always wondered about the terms football and soccer.

  • Russ


    If you go back a couple of centuries I’ll think you will find it was called football because the game was played on foot as opposed to those games played on horseback. This article explains it a bit better:

    “…The words ‘soccer’ and ‘rugger’ were in common use in England in the early 1890s at Oxford University. The words emanate from where the rules of their version of football originated. In soccer’s case, it was the formation of the Football Association. Rugger is a variation of Rugby School football rules, and later the Rugby Football Union.

    The argument that soccer – being a game where the ball is only played with the foot – is the only true form of football (and it alone is therefore entitled to use the name) is fanciful.

    When F.C. Morely drafted the first version of the F.A.’s football rules (1863) handling of the ball, and indeed, running with the ball in hand, were allowed whenever a player took a “fair catch” or picked the ball up on the first bounce.

    Handling in soccer was eventually cut back to only the goal keeper and restarting play from the touchlines, but it was born in 1863 with recognition that handling and running with the ball were part of the game of football.

    Such claims by soccer advocates also ignore the common folk origins of football, which were never restricted to just kicking the ball.

    Some historians point to evidence from old English texts which refer to football being the game of the lower classes – it being called “foot-ball” simply because the game was played “on foot”, as opposed to the sport of the ruling aristocracy, which was played on horse-back.

    Over recent years, both rugby codes in Australia have dropped the use of “football” from within their marketing titles. For example, the “NSW Rugby Football League” became the “NSW Rugby League”. Similarly, the NSWRFU became the NSWRU. ”

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  • Just A Bloke

    Never mind all that not on horseback swill. In the 21st Century, football means foot ball, period. Many people in Canada & the USA do call football by its true name, football. The other sport is gridiron, i don’t approve of the word handegg, it’s meaningless & disrespectful, like the ‘s’ word.

  • wow


  • Matt Thorn

    Actually, the Japanese also call it “soccer.” The game was introduced to Japan by Admiral Archibald Lucius Douglas, who was serving as an advisor to Japan’s fledgling navy, in 1873. It was known by the various English terms in use at the time until the 1910s, when a Japanese neologism was coined to refer to the game: 蹴球 (shūkyū), which is composed of Chinese ideograms meaning “kick ball.” (The Chinese, by the way, call the game 足球, pronounced zúqiú, and literally meaning “foot ball.”) Shūkyū was in common use until after World War II, when “soccer” was adopted, probably because of an American influence. Interestingly, while the Japanese abandoned the word they coined for the game, the term lives on in Japan’s former colony, Korea, where those ideograms are pronounced “chuggu” (축구).