‘Rugger’ – along with the etymologically linked ‘soccer’ – came into popular use well over a century ago – from ‘footer’…

Halifax v York 1877

Few would be unfamiliar with ‘rugger’ as an informal name for Rugby. For the most part ‘rugger’ is seen as a jaunty and good-humoured word, evoking Rugby’s historical ties to England’s upper social classes and University life around the globe.

When it comes to ‘soccer’, so the story goes, Charles Wreford Brown arrived at Oxford University in the late 1880s, whereupon he was promptly asked if he liked to “play rugger?”

Brown is said to have immediately quipped back something along the lines of “No, soccer!” – a quick-thinking and creative derivative of “Association Football” (the name of the code’s controlling body). The spelling of ‘soccer’ is also given as ‘socker’.

At the very least this story tells us that ‘rugger’ was in use at Oxford before ‘soccer’. Both tags can be found in common use in print from the early 1890s onwards, particularly in University and school publications throughout England.

While the ‘new modernists’ (or ‘revisionists’) of the round-ball code in 21st century Australia have fervently sought to banish ‘soccer’ from the game’s vernacular (while still cheering on the ‘Socceroos’), on the basis it is colonial or American-invented jingo to suppress its rightful claim to be the one true ‘football’, the reality is the name ‘soccer’ was devised and popularised in the code’s British birthplace (particularly the 1920s-70s). The rest of the world merely followed their lead.  

The Leisure Hour, an English magazine, hinted in 1895 that the words ‘soccer ‘ and ‘rugger’ had been derived to overcome the problem of differentiating the two forms of ‘football’:

“Of course, football means football under both codes, there being a University Club for each, with the usual annual Inter-University match, Oxford holding the advantage at ‘Rugger’ and Cambridge shining most at ‘Socker’.”

Whether the story about Wreford-Brown is apocryphal or not, The English Illustrated Magazine of 1892 at least confirms the inquisition of new students as to their football leaning was commonplace throughout England’s learning institutions:

“Nor will the freshman have been in college a week before he will have been searchingly questioned as to whether he can play football, where and when he has played it, and whether his game is ‘Rugger’ or ‘Socker’, by which barbaric terms he has by this time learnt that the games of Rugby Union and Association football are intended.”

‘Rugger’ and ‘soccer’ emerged at a time when it was all the rage amongst Oxford undergraduates to abbreviate a word or phrase into one word and then add “er” to the end of it – for example, turning ‘breakfast’ into ‘brekker’, calling a ‘duck pond’ a ‘ducker’, a lunatic became a ‘loony’, ‘bounder’ was a cad who ignored society’s bounds, ‘burry’ meant ‘bureau’, and an umbrella was a ‘brolly’.

It appears that this was a form of schoolboy slang that first emerged at Rugby School, and was then carried on at Harrow and other schools, and in time at Oxford and other universities.

At Harrow, football was called ‘footer’ from the early 1880s (at least), and Melbourne’s The Argus in 1907 suggested:

“When one particular word had been invented, such as ‘footer,’ for football, then he [students] proceeded by the instinct of analogy to use such words as ‘Soccer’ and ‘Rugger’ to denote the ‘Association’ and ‘Rugby’ games.”

That this word fad which gave us today’s ‘rugger’ began in English schools is supported by the verbosely titled A Short Manual of Comparative Philology for Classical Students published in 1895:

“This is not uncommon in language; the slang of one generation creeps into the literary dialect of the next.”

“From Harrow it spread to other schools and to the Universities, where in common parlance ‘Rugger’ and ‘Socker’ have taken the place with the players of Rugby and Association football of those terms respectively, while ‘fresher’ bids fair to usurp the place of ‘freshman’.”

© Sean Fagan