How soccer helped an ethnic slur take over Europe

Linguistic innovators.
Linguistic innovators.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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The word “hooligan” is one of those that sounds oddly like the concept it describes. Just as “glitter” sounds shiny and “lump” sounds lumpy, “hooligan” has a playful unruliness that suggests it is up to no good. Wear the wrong color jersey and it will smash a beer bottle over your head.

With the World Cup underway in Russia, this word will be appearing a lot. Not least because Russia itself has become a major source of soccer hooligans, like the ones that brutally attacked England fans at the European Championship in 2016; British tabloids are now warning that “England fans will DIE” at the hands of Russian hooligans at the World Cup. From its British origins, “hooligan” has grown into a universally understood, pan-European term, spreading from England to Russia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Germany, and beyond.

But before all that, it was an ethnic slur.

The O’Hooligans at the music halls

The distinctiveness of “hooligan” is due in part to its Irish origins. Irish has given to English such descriptors as “phony” and “limerick.” Irish-origin words sound a bit different, because they belong to the Celtic language family, which appears rarely in English. English is part of the Germanic family, and gets many of its words from Latin and Greek.

But the term “hooligan” used in English today does not come from an Irish word meaning “troublemaker,” “vandal,” or anything associated with soccer. Instead, it is widely believed to come from an Irish surname, either Houlihan or O’Hooligan. Whichever it was, the name was used in Victorian England as a byword for ethnic stereotypes of the Irish as disreputable low-lives.

That usage is thought to have been spread through the music halls of the time, where vaudevillians acted out comic sketches and songs. A character named “Hooligan” or “O’Hooligan” regularly appeared in these performances as such a stereotype. One show featured a “Mr. Patsey O’Hooligan, whose appearance is as disreputable as his conduct is discreditable,” explained The Era, a British weekly paper that came to be known for its theater coverage, in 1894. It adds that one actor is “exceedingly comical as the wild Irishman, O’Hooligan.”

Following that, “hooligan” begins to be used in England as a general term for a ruffian. That meaning appears to have been helped along by a gang that called itself “Hooligans,” as an 1898 report from the Daily News writes.

Organized chaos and beyond

In the century or so since, the “wild Irishman’s” namesake made its way across Europe. A Google image search for the Greek word χούλιγκαν (choúligkan) reveals countless images of men rioting in the streets. News articles in French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Portuguese regularly use forms of “hooligan.” It is defined in the official dictionary of Spain, where, before he was prime minister, Mariano Rajoy used it to insult his predecessor (link in Spanish).

The modern spread is probably thanks to the rise of violent soccer fandom in Europe in the 1960s.

At that time, organized groups of working-class men, associating themselves with particular clubs, emerged to riot and generally cause mayhem in the name of football. These hooligan “firms,” as they were called, became notorious worldwide. In 1985, before the start of the European Cup final, Liverpool supporters charged the mostly Italian fans of Juventus, leading to a stampede that killed 39 people and got all English teams banned from European competition.

A report by the UK-based Social Issues Research Centre soon observed, “It is clear that some form of disorderly behavior has occurred in virtually every country in which football is played.” But while “hooligan” spread across Europe to describe the phenomenon, it never crossed the Atlantic. In the United States, violence at sporting events is usually given more general terms like “rioting.” And Latin America has its own word for gangs of violent soccer fans, barrabrava, which originated in Argentina.

An official crime

While “hooligan” may today be heard among the World Cup fans of many nationalities in Russia, the word has a separate and distinctly Russian meaning there.

The Russian word хулига́н, or xuligán, “is attested in Russian dictionaries from the beginning of the 20th century onwards,” says Catherine MacRobert, lecturer in Russian philology at the University of Oxford. Indeed, this term shows up as early as 1898, in a column about life in England written for Russian Wealth, a magazine of the time—well before soccer was popular in the country.

A few years later, Russian newspapers started using it regularly to lament the rise of gangs of young men who were particularly brazen about committing crimes.

It is crime that sends Russia’s version of “hooligan” off in its own direction. Throughout the 20th century, “hooliganism” acquired a legal meaning in the country. By the time of the Soviet Union, hooliganism was an official crime. And it still is: Article 213 of Russia’s current criminal code defines it as a “gross violation of the public order manifested in patent contempt of society.”

Not only does the word still exist in Russian today, it is employed often. Unruly visiting football fans may want to take care with the term—the definition of xuligán is now so vague that this crime can be used to punish political dissidents who have not done anything technically illegal. ”Hooliganism” is what the feminist rock band Pussy Riot was charged with in 2012 when they performed a song protesting the rule of Vladimir Putin. Petr Pavlensky, the activist and artist, was accused of the same for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in 2013.