In the book Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome (1933) it says:

"It's lucky it's not the football term," said John. "A month might make just the difference about getting into the fifteen"

When I read this first, I was assuming that he was referring to Football (Soccer) but re-reading it, I'm now thinking he is referring to Rugby, specifically Rugby Union.

Reasoning: football teams have 11 players and rugby teams have 15 players.

If he was referring to football, he'd have said 'the eleven'.

So, considering the date of the novel (1933) is it fair to assume that the word 'Football' is referring to 'Rugby'? In 1933, was 'Football' (soccer) known by a different term?

2 Answers 2


It could be less about the period and more about the specific social/cultural context.

According to this BBC interview with sports historian Tony Collins (who has written multiple books on the history of rugby), professional rugby player Tony Marchant, and Trever Gibbons (rugby league writer):

TONY COLLINS: I mean the other thing that I, I found amazing when I went there a couple of years ago, in Australia, is the fact that rugby league, well certainly in New South Wales and s- and Queensland, rugby league is football, so if you talk about rugby, they think you're talking about rugby union.
TREVOR: But, but, quite often in our house, especially growing up, you wouldn't talk about rugby - we would say, "Are we off to the football today?" And we'd know we meant rugby. You wouldn't say, "Are you off to the rugby?" We'd have to say, "Are you off to the football?" And like if somebody's having a- or if a team's having a good game we still say they're playing some great football.
TONY COLLINS: Cos I would have, I would have thought that, that anybody, we say rugger it's obviously rugby union but, yeah, I mean my granny used to call rugby league, football. [...] Yeah, well it's like Hull Football Club. Because that's what football was.

If the Walkers came from a "rugby town" - or rather, given their evident social class, if John's public school was a "rugby school" - then it might be normal for them to say "football" meaning rugby. Note that fifteen players means it's rugby union rather than the thirteen-player rugby league, which makes sense (and makes the above quoted interview less directly relevant) since rugby union is the posh version of the sport, and the Walker family are obviously a posh family rather than working-class northerners. We don't know exactly which school any of them went to, although Jim Brading went to Rugby School, like Arthur Ransome himself - this would be the school that the author would be most familiar with. Presumably rugby is one of the most important sports there, and surely there of all places it might be normal to use simply the word "football" to refer to rugby union football, rather than "rugby" which is the name of the school itself!

  • Also, it should be noted that the official English Rugby Union body is the RFU or Rugby Football Union (englandrugby.com/about-rfu), as is the New Zealand (NZRFU) - nzhistory.govt.nz/foundation-of-the-new-zealand-rugby-union. These bodies came about in the 1880's. So I would imagine the term football was in common use around this time for soccer and rugby although I'm not sure. Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 0:18
  • Many (most?) rugby clubs have 'RFC' in the name, standing for 'Rugby Football Club'. And worth pointing out that rugby originated as 'Rugby football' meaning 'the football game played at Rugby, the school (in Rugby, the town)'. 'Association football' (> 'assoc. football' > 'soccer') is the original name of the 11-person sport. 'Football' used to be a much more generic term, which particularised in the UK to mean association football and in the US to mean American football (and evidently in other places to mean other things).
    – dbmag9
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 12:37

At my (public) school (in England 'public' schools are actually private i.e. one has to pay fees for the privilege of attending), it is common for rugby football as a sport to be described as either 'rugny', 'ruggers' or simply 'football' as the correct term for 'football' is actually soccer. Bear in mind that rugby (football) is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen, and soccer (football) is a gentleman's game played by hooligans. But true toffs would always play: cricket, rugby (football) and rowing as their three most cherished sports.

  • Is "rugny" a typo?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 6:31
  • This answer could be improved by relating it to the text. Did the characters in Winter Holiday go to the same school as you? Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 12:08
  • @Randal'Thor from similar experience I would say so, but I didn't go to the same school as user14256 (AFAIK) and anyway it's a 1 character edit. If the user doesn't come back, an edit would be reasonable. In my school we had "football" = "soccer" as a much less prestigious additional sport to rugby. (I reckon that makes me less of a toff than user14256!)
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 12:24
  • @GarethRees As far as I and internet fandom know, the text doesn't say which school the characters went to. Unless of course the passage quoted by the OP here is itself a subtle hint towards a particular school, perhaps the author's own alma mater of Rugby School.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Dec 3, 2021 at 16:49

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