The truth about soccer moms

Hunter Davies' "The Fan" column.

Sarah Palin, the ultimate soccer mom. Photograph: Getty Images

What’s the difference between a soccer mom and a pitbull? Lipstick. OK, Sarah Palin said that about hockey moms but it still works. Soccer mom is an American expression and I’m proud our national game has given them a household phrase.

As a child, I was told off by teachers for using Americanisms such as “OK”. A whole post-war generation was upset by the importation of American English. That attitude has gone, though when my children were young I disliked them saying everything was cool and I still hate being told to have a nice day. So the idea of the word soccer becoming common over there – as a game and as a phrase – is well, kinda neat. Especially as we hardly say soccer any more. The word was invented in the 1880s when an Oxford student called Charles Wreford- Brown, later a star with the Corinthians, was asked one afternoon by some friends if he was going to play rugby football or association football. Rugger was already in use among public school types as short hand, so he replied “soccer”, coining it out of association. That’s the legend. I have repeated it in football books so many times, it must be true.

Soccer became used mainly by the elite, to differentiate it from rugger, but when the game went professional and the masses took over, it was always called football – as there was no need to differentiate.

The first recorded use of “soccer mom” in the US was in 1995, when a Susan B Casey was standing for local elections in Denver and used the slogan “A Soccer Mom for the City Council”. It went into general use in the 1996 election to describe the sort of white, suburban female both parties wanted to attract.

In reading stuff about the last US presidential election, it seemed the phrase had moved on, somehow ceasing to be a sporting term and was now purely political, used to describe a mythical being, like Mondeo Man, but now with a slight undertone of a sneer. So I did a straw poll of three friends in the US, all in different parts.

Phrase makers

First I asked Roger Bennett in New York who writes about soccer – ie, our football – for ESPN. “The phrase has become frayed with borderline pejorative, suggesting small-minded. I don’t think anyone actually knows what it means now – but no one wants to be it.”

I then asked my friend Van in Washington, a retired academic and economist. “It refers to middle-class, probably uppermiddle- class, suburban women, whose kids have regularly scheduled soccer games. It carries a loose class connotation, which is why it’s not associated with other sports. Except, of course, it does not work for Hispanic moms, whose working-class kids play nothing but soccer.”

I then moved to San Jose in California and asked my friend Vickie. “Soccer mom is now a derogatory term for a mom (often good-looking at least around here) who is a total bitch on the sideline. Loud, overbearing, arguing with the ref. Emails the coach constantly. On the upside, she is a faithful spectator and willing to drive her own and others’ kids to games etc. Quite the opposite to when soccer first started over here and the moms helped organise it all – then it meant a ‘good mom’.”

Right, hope that’s clearer. Now off on hols. See you in two weeks!