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

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