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Football v. Soccer and other British-American language conundrums

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One of the great things about watching the London Olympics is the treat of listening to British English. There are a lot of little differences, some charming and some simply confusing.

Mignon Fogarty of the Grammar Girl podcast joins the show to talk verbization, plurality, and the grammatical roots of the word "soccer."

So why do we call it soccer when the British call it football? The British actually called it both soccer and football, as did Americans in the late 1800s and continuing into the 1900s. Both sports come from the same precursor sport, but the rules were fuzzy and different in different locations. When the rules started getting more codified, the American and British games diverged, and the different names became more associated with one game or the other.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "soccer" actually started as slang in Britain. Football was called "association football," referring to the association rules. The "soc" at the beginning of "soccer" comes from the "soc" in the middle of the word "association."

Spectators have also noticed that the British will say "Great Britain are playing brilliantly today," and Americans will say "Great Britain is playing brilliantly today." This is one of the more noticeable language quirks that varies between British and American English. In American English, we mix our verbs, calling the team plural but the city singular. So we'd say "The Lakers are winning," but "Los Angeles is winning." In Britain, they keep it all plural. So Brits would say, "Los Angeles are winning."

Olympics commentators have also been heard using "medal" as a verb. Seemingly another divide in Brit English and American English, it's actually a usage that started in Southern California. The Oxford English Dictionary reports the first use of the verb in 1966 in the Valley News published in Van Nuys. It was actually used much earlier than that to mean that someone was awarded a medal of honor, but CA led the way in sports.

But just to keep things confusing, as with many British variations on spelling, our Olympic hosts actually have one extra L in the word "medalled." For that, we can blame Noah Webster. He wanted to simplify American spelling and did so in his dictionary.


Mignon Fogarty is the host of the Grammar Girl podcast on her website Quick and Dirty Tips. She is also the author of "101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time."