History of the word 'hooligans'. By English with Stephen

Word Stories: Hooligan

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Hello! My name’s Stephen Greene and this is the Learning English with Stephen podcast. In this episode, we are going to look at the story behind the origin of the word ‘hooligan’. It’s a story that includes prejudice and football. Lots of football. Because I love football.

But first, this.

Remember that you can find the transcript to this episode, as well as information about following me on social media, past episodes and how to have classes with me online, by going to my site, EnglishwithStephen.com

On with the story of the origin on the word ‘hooligan’.

I love football. Always have and I probably always will. And by football, I should clarify that I mean real football. You know, the kind that uses a round ball that is usually kicked by a foot. Americans have their own type of ‘football’ that doesn’t use a ball but something that looks more like an egg. And feet are rarely used to kick that egg, anyway.

In fact, there are many types of ‘football’. There is Gaelic football in Ireland, rugby football found in various parts of the world. There is Venetian football in Italy and probably other types too. So, the official name of the sport I love is Association Football, but I am just going to call it football. Not soccer. Never soccer.

As a kid growing up in 1980s England, football was my first true love. My team was and always will be Birmingham City, or the Blues. We were, are, and probably always will be, terrible. There were a brief few years where we won a cup and competed in the Premier League, but it never felt right. We have been in the Championship, or the second division, for nearly 10 years now.

But as a kid, that didn’t matter. I wanted to play for Blues, win cups for Blues, manage Blues, and maybe even, one day, own Blues.

But the Blues, and indeed most of English football in the 80s, had a disease: hooligans. Organised, or at least semi-organised, groups of rival fans met up to fight each other. It started in the stadiums, or on the terraces as they used to be known, and continued out on the streets, in the bars or on trains and buses. We soon exported our disease to Europe, first at international games involving England and then foreign clubs started to copy us at our own game, just like they had at football so many years previously.

Violence at football matches is nothing new. Football has deep roots in English society, going back at least to the 13th century when it was one bog fight. Different governments at different times tried to ban the sport, but they were never totally successful. When football was organised in the 19th century, it quickly became popular among young, working-class men. They fought each other to show how good they were, to gain status, to have a story to tell. In the 1960s, with the rise of youth cultures, this behaviour suddenly exploded into newspapers and onto TV screens, giving the comfortable middle-classes another reason to dislike working-class culture and retreat to rugby and cricket. And so, the football hooligan was born.

But hooligans were not new, either. It is not entirely clear where the word comes from, but it is probably a corruption of the Irish surname O’Houlihan coming from London in the late 1800s. One theory is that the name Hooligan acted as a sort of code for a drunken Irish family that constantly broke the law, got drunk, and had a wild time. Another theory is that there was an Irish bouncer, or security guard, at a pub in London who was also a well-known criminal.

But the reference to Irish people is clear. The Irish had a very bad reputation in England until very recently. Of course, they would be involved in fighting and drinking and law-breaking. Using an Irish name to describe this type of behaviour, and then using that name to describe young working-class men at football matches was an obvious next step.

But whatever the origins of the word, or the origins of the violence, it made English football a tense experience. Most of that tension has gone now. Most of the hooligans have disappeared from football. It is sanitised and expensive. Everybody sits down to watch a game. It is often boring. But at least nobody gets killed for watching a game of grown men kicking a ball around a piece of grass.

I hope you have liked this story. The idea of my podcasts is to keep them short, between 5 and 10 minutes. Half of the episodes look at learning strategies, that is, what good learners do to learn English quickly and effectively. The other half are like this episode in that they tell the story of the history of a word.

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Thanks for listening and Come on Blues and Keep Right On!

A pucture of scruffy Doctor Martens with one foot resting on a football. Text: Word Stories: Holligans. The origin of the word 'hooligans' by English with Stephen
‘Ave it!

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