These French words that every football fan should know

As many Anglicisms come from this sport, do you know that certain terms of football jargon have French origins and equivalents?

Originally, the word “football” referred to any ball game between two teams. Taken from the English compound of “foot”, “foot”, and “ball”, “balle, ballon”, the term appeared in France in the 17th century. It goes without saying, however, that at that time, “football” did not yet designate the collective sport popularized in the 19th century and which is today the subject of world competitions. No, it is then a “primitive” game played by the British, heir to the French soule.

In the Middle Ages, the soule was a means of distraction and amusement for the inhabitants of the Picardy, Normandy regions, and more generally of the north-east of France. According to Treasure of the French language, it was a rather violent game consisting of throwing a leather ball filled with bran or hay with the hand or foot. In the 11th century, this activity would have crossed the English Channel with William the Conqueror. “It is tastywrites Morris Marples in The history of football (1st edition), that the quintessential English game was of French origin.

“Dribble”, “tackle”, “hold-up”, “play-off”… These English words, specific to football jargon and now known to everyone, have traveled together with the dissemination of football around the world. But do you know that some of them have French origins, or at least equivalents?

a but

Just as it is accepted by all that a “goalkeeper” designates a goalkeeper, a player whose role is to ensure the defense of a goal, the “goal” qualifies the football cage, the goal, which he protects. Borrowed from the low Frankish “but” (“log, log”) designating a piece that was used for archery, as explained by the French Academy, the term (often supplanted by the word “goal”) thus qualify the structure that a player aims to achieve his goal, i.e. to score a point. Being of course preferable to use the French term “but” to designate this object, you do not have to be ashamed to use the word “goal”. Indeed, as indicated by the Online etymology dictionary, the latter comes from the old French “gaule”, used in the 13th century to speak of a long pole, a stake. Probably the one that served to mark the limits of the goal in question.

A shot of guilt

If we often hear that “the referee is forced to whistle a penalty” during the televised broadcast of a football match, the “penalty” (shot on goal awarded to a team as part of a penalty award against the opposing team, for a fault committed in its own penalty area) has been attested in the English language as a sporting term since 1885. At that time, French also adopted it. Previously, the English “penalty” meant a sanction encouraged for an action contrary to a law, a regulation or a contract. This word, as indicated by the wise men of the Academy, is borrowed from the French “penalty”, (“quality of what is penal”). while the word “penalty”, used to speak of “penalty shot”, exists.

A skylight

Do not call it “corner” or “top corner” as it is in its English form. The “skylight” is what qualifies the upper angle, right or left, of the goals. This is precisely the corner formed by the intersection between the post and the crossbar of the cage. For the goalkeeper, as for the scorer (who can be said to have great precision if he succeeds), this is the most difficult place to reach when shooting. Borrowed from the Frankish “lukinna”, designating an opening made in the roof of a house, the word “skylight” was for a time abandoned in favor of its English equivalent. It would seem that the so-called “skylight of Evry” challenge, consisting of getting the ball into a small window, has given the term back its footballing meaning.

A pressure

“Defending well starts with pressing, and pressing starts in front”, explained in 2021 Peter Bosz, then coach of Olympique Lyonnais. What does that mean? Could there be a connection between football and these commercial establishments where clothes are cleaned and then steam ironed? Nay. Pressing is a defensive phase which consists in preventing the opponent’s progress by the player carrying the ball by cutting off his passing trajectories, by isolating him. Term of football jargon born in the twentieth century, it comes from the English verb “to press” (“action to press”), itself from the French “to press”. Also, why not talk about “exerting pressure” rather than “pressing”?


Leave a Comment