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 an artist and writer living in Virginia. He channels most of his enthusiasm into making things for his online art shop, Artness! by Justin Brown. You can keep up to date with him, his worldly adventures, and his dogs by following him on Instagram and on Facebook

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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 =-.

    • Poruchik Rzhevskiy

      You’d be better off actually listening to your boyfriend in this case 😉

  • 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. ”

    • oggmeista

      oh they were in common use at to poxy igsignificant unis..this is the peoples game and they gdamn well called it soc** shite it’s football to anybody who actually cares.. like football fans do…so Americans are going to have to sukc it and stop using that hideous disrespectfull refrain

      Football the beautiul game, easily the greatest game on the planet you can all stick your so***er shite where the sun don’t shine American ignoramousess.

      • rocky dennis

        You mad, bro?

      • ReturnoftheBrotha .

        You people are mad that we could care less about soccer. You can’t understand it. Soccer is boring and NFL is exciting.

      • Kyle

        Sounds biased lol

        • Haiku

          American football suck. A bunch of fat guys with heavy armor jumping over one and another it’s ridiculously stupid. Basketball is the only american sport that worth watching. Oh wait, wasn’t it Canadian?

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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.

    • ReturnoftheBrotha .

      No one in the US cares about Canada. Canada is Europe in the Americas.

      • Andy tomlinson-smith

        America define the word football this will be interesting to here your definition of the word .may I start in saying it has nothing to do with hands.

    • Behnam Saberi

      I usually call it American Handball. I think that describes the sport best, it’s not disrespectful and if you write Gridiron, then sadly most people wonder what language you’re speaking.
      You have to admit though, calling pretty much ALL sports football just because you weren’t fucking riding something is pretty damn retarded.
      For me, it makes sense NOT to refer to American Handball as Football simply because the historical reasons are just plain stupid and retarded.

      • Haiku

        You can’t call it Handball because by definition the Ball is a round object. You can call it Handweirdshitsport.

        • Behnam Saberi

          Haiku Nice try but actually the definition of a ball is NOT a perfectly spherical object. The definition of a ball is: a round or roundish body or mass. So you don’t need a perfect sphere in order to call something a ball.

  • 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).

  • Gometric America

    Let’s Call It Football, in the interest of forming a greater kinship with our worldwide sports community, urges all to call the beautiful game Football instead of Soccer. We realize this creates a conflict with our friends playing GridIron. So, we urge all to adopt GridIron as a more apt name for this very popular sport.

  • Maxximo

    First off,I’m an American….I think football aka (soccer) is and should be the universal name for it. Futbol(Spain),FuBball (Germany)Football(England) etc. is all the same. Italy calls it Calcio which roughly means kicking…like kickball. In old days they called “pallone” which translates to just ball…as in foot(ball). Cuz it was the country’s main sport/pastime. Much like the sport of American baseball here, folks called it “ball”. even today when you hear someone say let’s play ball,it more than likely means baseball. But for whatever reason Italy calls Calcio. I have no problem calling it football,but I also understand if Americans wanna call it soccer cuz that’s the name that stuck here. I tend to say American football when describing NFL. makes more sense to me since football aka soccer,came first. Football aka Rugby is 2nd,then from that American football aka Football was born. All three sports are completely different and have their own unique identity and names even tho actually They’re related by blood.

  • Jayden Golden Hill

    canada is part of america,becaue america is a continent.

    • jambajew

      False. America is not a continent. North America is a continent, and both Canada and the United States of America are in North America. The term for the entire region with North and South America is The Americas. If you’re going to be a smart ass (which I have zero problem with, I’m a huge smart ass), try to be right.

      • Jayden Golden Hill

        If Korea is not a location in North Korea, then America is not a location in North America. And what I said isn’t objectively false. As in it’s not a scientific fact that America means the USA. There can be a different quantity of continents. Finns at least think Europe and Asia are one continent, Eurasia.

        • jambajew

          I suppose you are technically correct. The best kind of correct (per Futurama). Growing up I always learned about the seven continents, and had never heard of it being classified as fewer than seven. A quick google search and a look at the wikipedia page (wait, did you edit the wikipedia page? I’m onto you!) shows that, while seven is the most commonly considered number of continents, it is sometimes classified as low as four: Afro-Eurasia, America, Antarctica, Australia. I apologize for correcting you incorrectly.

        • jambajew

          Link to the technically correct clip…disqus sometimes hates links, so I posted it separately.

  • Behnam Saberi

    Why don’t go back further and give the full story? Because you’re living in denial and want to give American excuses instead of educating them?
    The ONLY reason any and almost EVERY sport was originally called football is because people used their own two feet to move around. If you rode a chariot, animal or slave your sport would be called something else.
    If you didn’t ride something, skate or ski then whatever sport you were doing was “football”… ALL OF THEM… which is a completely fucking retarded reason. The US should change the name of their sport since the name you use is literally because you’re not riding slaves.
    Also you’re barely allowed to touch the ball with your feet, if you can call that thing a ball. You use your hand 99% of the time while in real Football if your hands even touch the ball you get penalised.
    And an association is NOT a sport. Football is called football today and not FIFA because it’s not an organisation, it’s a SPORT. Calling it soccer is like Basketball NBA. Simply retarded. So now I wonder, did you learn something or are you still going to call your non slave riding sport football? Like a retard!?

    • Kyle

      Why so serious? Shouldn’t use the R word you know, we’re in the 21st century…. we’re all just here to share info and learn right?

    • jambajew

      I’ll continue calling it football and the other sport soccer. That way people will know what I’m talking about.

    • AmericanMonarchy

      Why does it matter to you that much?! We call it Soccer here. I like soccer. I like Football. Ranting about about it makes one come off emotionally stunted.

      Either way, just bide your time, if NFL games keep getting longer with video reviews and commercial breaks while pricing out their customers at the ticket office then they’ll be going bankrupt in a couple of decades.

      Of course, with the way the world is evolving pro sports will wane off into extenction altogether the same way religion is headed out the door.

      • disqus_vURt86wfIE

        AmericanMonarchy why

        • oggmeista

          cos the mf egg they use was originally “a “foot”..long, hence why they have termed it Foot –ball……..but imho it’s a pathetic cop out…they have not only stolen the name of the world greatest ever game, but have bastardized footbal, by tagging it with a pathetic made up abbreviation ..just look at the game,, you use your hands almost all the time, and the oject that is used isn’t even spherical it’s eliptical same as a mf egg…i mean they could just call there sport enefel and give back the name of football…

          people think it mens nothing, but words and meanings of phrases and nouns, have changed in history, and this should never be allowed to become one of them…

  • Poruchik Rzhevskiy

    Utter bullshit. European football, although originated in England and derived from tribes of Britain that go back to the times of Roman colonization of Brittany sh isles, had never been played by hands. Some hand play was permitted, similar to how it’s handled in modern hockey. So, keep your propaganda to yourself, illiterate yank. Your “american fooseball” is nothing, practically unknown outside of US and Canada. You came up with this abomination because you never scored high in either rugby or noble football. Your usual strategy – come up with your own shit that nobody else cares about and call it the world championship. My advise, just stop the pretense and learn to play rugby or what you bastards call “soccer” right.

  • Ahm Farooq

    American doesn’t call football as football as they think they are different like they drive left hand as others drive right hand.