In all the time that the Language Lounge has been open to visitors we have kept the Sports Closet firmly locked, fending off inquisitive passers-by with blandishments, for we were never sure what words might tumble out if the door was opened. The recent World Cup tournament in Germany reminded us that sports and language do not exist in isolation from each other, and provided the motive to see what the Visual Thesaurus might have to say about the babel of languages that swirl around international association football.
If you're already scratching your head, chances are that you're a North American English speaker. You'll notice that association football shares a node with soccer, the name of the game that may have first sprung to your mind when you read "World Cup." Soccer, however, is mainly a disambiguating term in the Anglophone world outside of the U.S. and Canada: folks use it to confirm that what you are really talking about is what they call simply football. It's an informative exercise to leave this small wordmap on the screen and turn on the display of European languages one by one to see what you get. They call it fútbol in Spain, football in France and Italy, Fußball in Germany, and voetbal in the Netherlands. We give an honorary mention to Futebol (Portugal), since that country made it to the semifinals, though not yet to the VT. Note the pattern: the Romance languages without exception opt for a direct loan from English, making spelling changes where their phonetics make them desirable; the Germanic languages (Dutch and German) both have sound-alike loan translations. The word is, needless to say, originally English, and the game as we know it today is largely English in origin as well. It seems fair to note that this is yet another respect in which English has achieved unmistakable, if not intentional, international influence.
If you're wondering about the "association" part: that's a tip-of-the-hat towards the FA, or Football Association, the governing body of English football since 1863. Curiously, the word soccer owes its birth to this organization: the word history goes more or less like this: football → association football → assoc. football → socca' football → soccer football → soccer. The affectionate term for Britain's other football game, rugger, arose in a similar way.
The various designations of football's main international tournament give an interesting snapshot into the habits of languages in devising names for institutions, and the different devices they resort to for making a long story short. English scores first in succinctness, naming the tournament after its trophy — the World Cup. For most English speakers, this term designates the tournament mainly, and the trophy specifically only in particular contexts. The Romance languages all have an official designation for the tournament, and some of these official terms have a reference to the cup, such as French coupe du monde and Spanish copa mundial. But except for the Portuguese (they call it officially and informally copa do mundo), Romance speakers can refer unambiguously to the tournament simply by nominalizing their adjective that means "worldwide." Thus French le mondial, Italian i mondiali, Spanish el mundial. You'll see shadows of the Latin ancestor of these words, which meant world, if you still have any of the romance languages turned on in the VT (such as Spanish mundo, French monde).
English, never a language to shun neighbors, has a couple of cousins to these words that derive ultimately from Latin mundus: demimonde and mundane. From mundane's wordmap you might just glimpse the connection with the European designations for the tournament, but somehow, it's not hard to guess why in the end we decided to go Teutonic: neither "terrestrial cup" nor "terrene cup" really fly in English!
If you turn off the romance and get Dutch and German up in the VT display, you'll get a leg up on their World Cup spin. These Germanic languages enjoy the blessing of short punchy nouns that English has also inherits, and you wonder why they don't use them. The Dutch and Germans both adopt a similar strategy: devise a hopelessly long and obtuse name for the tournament, then shorten it to an acronym. If you want to make an advance guess, have a look at world and champion with Dutch and German displayed in the wordmaps. Ready? The Germans officially designate the tournament Weltmeisterschaft and the Dutch have devised wereld kampioenschap (translation in both cases: "world championship"). On the street, the Germans call it WM, the Dutch call it WK.
English hegemony notwithstanding, it is refreshing to point out that, as far as we know, the lingua franca of Europe played no part in the tournament's most celebrated moment, the "headbutt seen round the world," in which French idol Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane took the wind out of Italian Marco Materazzi's sails with a well-aimed blow (could we call it a patal blow?) to Materazzi's solar plexus. It is reported that Zizou, having played in Italy, speaks the language there and so fortunately these two bad boys did not have to invoke English for their transnational trashfest.
The immediate upshot of the act, however — the red card issued to Zidane — provides an opportunity to spotlight, once again, the unmatchable elegance of English. Red and card are both busy wordmaps, but take a moment to look at a few of the European equivalents for these common words. Alone among European languages, English marries up these two words to form a compound of seven letters, two short syllables, and a surprising economy of phonemes: only four unique ones. Dutch (rode kaart) and French (carton rouge) come second, with three syllables each, and seven or eight phonemes. Our cousin German, owing to the burden of grammatical gender, is up to four syllables (rote karte), and it only gets worse from there. Spanish: tarjeta roja. Portuguese: cartão vermelho. Italian: cartellino rosso.
Naysayers notwithstanding, we in the Lounge believe that soccer will come into its own in the US in the coming years, especially as the sprogs of today's soccer moms and dads advance to college age and beyond. In preparation, we can recommend the following:
- A Wikipedia article about soccer terminology, which makes the game considerably less opaque for anyone who finds it so:
- The official World Cup Tournament site, which allows many opportunities for exploring the language of soccer in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese:
- Socceranto: Birth of a Language,
a free downloadable e-book that explores Europe-wide soccer slang and tries
admirably to explain the origin and application of several terms:
or you can order it as a paperback: