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 footballassoc. footballsocca' footballsoccer footballsoccer. 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:

  1. A Wikipedia article about soccer terminology, which makes the game considerably less opaque for anyone who finds it so:
  2. 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:
  3. 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:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 1st 2006, 3:31 AM
Comment by: Robert W J.
As the "hooty owl" in the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd comic dialogue of the fifties said: "Frankly, I don't give a hoot!" About soccer, that is. The semantics of the different terms, is however, extremely interesting. Having a working knowledge of French, Italian, German,and Latin, I concur wholeheartedly with your phrase "the unmatchable elegance of English". The late, great Professor of English, Colin Roderick of JCU (Townsville, Queensland, Australia)once described English as "the Living Master Language of the world." One cannot improve on that.
Sorry I have no interest in soccer, but then I have no interest in any form of sport, being a bookish recluse. Love your Visual Thesaurus. Love words to distraction. Love the derivation of words. Keep'em coming. And the articles. Great stuff!
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 4:22 AM
Comment by: chris P.
In Australia,we play different versions of football throughout the nation.
Western Australia,South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria participate predominately in Australain Rules Football.Western Australia and New South Wales have teams in the National Rugby League competition.
Queensland and New South Wales are Rugby States. Both Rugby Union and Rugby League. However both states have teams in the Australian Football League (That's Aussie Rules).
The Northern Territory and The Australian Capital Territory play almost anything that has a goal at both ends of the pitch.
All the states play soccer.
As a nation we have given up identifying our particular code.
We just refer it as footie. Everyone understands.
By the way our footie team got to the last 16. chris p.
ps Were's the bloody spelling checker on this page
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 6:30 AM
Comment by: Mike F.
Enjoyable article... but the Italian for Football / Soccer is in fact 'Calcio'... not 'Football' as suggested in the article...

Mike Forte
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 6:34 AM
Comment by: Mike F.
... and the Portuguese do not call the World Cup 'copa da mundo', it is 'copa do mundo' (mundo being masculine).
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 9:08 AM
Comment by: Charles B.
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Kitty M.
I just traveled to Australia this summer and found my understanding of "sport" terms lacking----this article was delightful.

I am a speech language pathologist and teach at Southern Illinois University -Carbondale. I talk teach my students that words are generative--this article could be fun when discussing this topic.
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 10:21 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
As a Canadian/American fan of 'footie' however it is played by and for Australians and the rest of the world 'up over', I have frequently wondered about the name of the North American game which admittedly does have very little to do with the 'foot' except for the specialist kickers.

I think its history lies in rugby, and it got messed up by the use of those darn 'downs' (we have 3 in Canada to the 4 in the States). The forward pass was an exciting addition, once they had thus wrecked the original.

Now so much protective gear is required to play it that one wonders how those playing do manage to carry the ball, and why there are not more injuries from being hit with those lumpy, bumpy shoulder pads.

Just to let you all know that we here are getting into the game (football), an indoor arena with four full size pitches is being built here + more outside ones.

Before you start laughing, you come play in our below 0C/32F springs! We have a very short playing season which is much enjoyed by mosquitoes.

Both the States and Canada will be joining you in the elite realms you now call your own soon. We will probably not give it the right name here, as we do have that other game, similar to the US one. Sigh!
Tuesday August 1st 2006, 2:39 PM
Comment by: L B.
O Joy! I do so love the language and its derivations. It is pleasing to me to note that all the world is not a nuclear race track and that Soccer, Futbol, footie or whatever handle it dons gives us hot, sweaty, competition in an arena surrounded by screaming, gutsy fans who would rather be there than anywhere. Perhaps the whole international groan will come down to Soccer, and the nuclear weapons will all be used for mining or some such operation that brings good to all mankind. Thanks Visual Thesaurus for enlarging on the code. LB
Wednesday August 2nd 2006, 8:01 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Many thanks to all readers for your comments. Thanks, Mike Forte, for your Portuguese correction. That's not a language I speak! As I noted in the article, "football" is now the popular designation for the game in Italian but you're right that "calcio" is the official term: and the VT backs you up on that. Interestingly, Italian characterizes the game by what you do (calcio being related to the verb for "kick") rather than the by appendage you do it with, as the other European languages have it.

I am delighted to see that the Lounge enjoys a truly international readership. I was lucky enough to see an Australian rules football game in Melbourne some years ago I and remember it as being quite a thrill ride!
Thursday August 24th 2006, 4:35 PM
Comment by: James W.
For three years in Vancouver, Canada, I played the British version of the game we called rugby— without benefit of pads or helmet. And to this day, many years later, my body spasms uncontrollably at the mere mention of the word.

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