How To Deal with That Family Member at Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

[This entry is cross posted at]

Thanksgiving dinner is intended to be a convivial affair. Much is made of the idea that we should stop and consider our blessings, note the good that others have done for us, count the times that we have feared but not lost, and the recognize than when we have lost the sadness felt was in proportion to the joy we were lucky enough to share in. I’ll not object to such exercizes. We should enumerate and recognize the things that make our lives better and give thanks for them each and separately. I don’t think I’ve ever done that, but we should. To me, and I assume many others, the wonder of Thanksgiving comes from less the mental tabulations – again, worthy activities – than time set aside to spend in communion with those we love; the feelings of thanks flowing effortlessly from and through the fellowship and unbidden forming yet another entry on the grand ledger for which we give even further thanks. Properly set, the Thanksgiving dinner table is a familial perpetual emotion machine. At least, it should be. We do our best. That’s why I’m so loathe to bring this up.

We all have that relative who is going to disrupt the Thanksgiving dinner harmony this year. It’ll likely be a man. I don’t want to be sexist, but it will. Your brother, uncle, brother in-law, father, grandfather, or cousin is going to say something controversial. Ideally, I’d sit on my hands and hope his inane thoughts get ignored and he moves on to other subjects, but these days there are devoted cable stations, web sites, and all manner of social media clamour feeding the bubble he lives in and god knows how many circular bias reinforcing bar conversations he’s a veteran of. He’s been marinating in this fantasy and has enough ammunition to blather on from soup to nuts. In addition to annoyed eye rolling adults, there’s the matter of any children present at the table. Should you sit by while a supposed authority figure fills their minds with this? You have to weigh his intrusion on their formative mind against the risk of upsetting your host and having it out with the offending presence right then and there (in which case I believe your host and probably all of the other guests will be secretly relieved and thank you later.) I say have it out. If you are cutting and decisive you may have him vanquished and silent before anyone sits at the table because when he sees Detroit playing Buffalo on TV he won’t be able to help but smugly inject some variation on “Flip channels so we can watch some real football. Brazil and Serbia, man! World Cup!” Properly armed you can end this now.

“Real football” was the opening salvo. He knows that he’s a provocateur and has laid down bait. Take it. “No, this is fine,” you’ll say. “I don’t want to watch soccer.” The battle is joined.

He’ll go on about how the rest of the world calls it “futbol” or whatever and that nobody cares about “American” football. He’ll likely check the “Most Popular Sport in the World,” “So Called Athletes Have to Take a Rest Every Six Seconds,” and “They Wouldn’t Be So Tuff Without Pads” boxes while he peppers his insular-gotten propaganda with observations about how often players in “American” football (he may inflect differently making it American “football”) use their hands rather than feet. Let him drone on and wear himself out. This is verbal rope-a-dope. All his arguments can be easily refuted except the one about popularity and you don’t care about that because what is right is measured qualitatively not quantitatively. Don’t be distracted from the initial claim. When he’s passed his rant tell him that you speak English, and that you don’t care what people call soccer in other languages. In English, we call it soccer. Ask the British. They named it.

Let him have it. Hold nothing back. As recently as 1964 England’s greatest hero, Bobby Charlton of the 1966 World Cup Team who killed a dragon and waits below the great hill to emerge when his island is in time of gravest peril, titled his book My Soccer Life. They can’t hide from that. Why did the British all of a sudden decide to pretend they never called the game soccer?

There was chaos under the rubric of the name football and every school, collection of civil servants, and group of no-names with access to a roughly rectangular field and a pigskin played under their own rules. In 1863 a bunch of them got together at a Freemasonic tavern (because of course they did) and codified a single set of rules to card them all. Thus was born Association Football, or “soccer” by virtue of that weird English school convention whereby guys named “Willmington” emerge as “Willers” and people who annoy others become “buggers.” Take “Association,” drop the “As-“, truncate, and add “-er”*. For over a century the game was called either soccer or football equally in the English press and nobody got mad or had to wear big leather boots to a sporting event to look cool.

The slow change from either soccer or football to “It’s football you arse!” began in the years following WWII until “soccer” was regarded as beyond the pale in the late 70s or so, but only in Great Britain. In America it remained soccer. In Ireland: soccer. The same in Canada, Pakistan, New Zealand, and so many other countries where the British exported their language as well as their sport. In Australia it was probably known as socce-wakki-doolu or something but the point maintains.

The word “football”’s emergence coincides with the crumbling of the British Empire and the withdrawal of a power that once sat astride the globe. They went from Vera Lynn to Billy Bragg. It was quite a fall back to their own patch of Earth. I think the dropping of “soccer” is a symptom of Britain’s geographic retreat. Where they were of the world they were suddenly mostly of Europe. They’d be culturally self-conscious. They seeded the world with co-linguists but at the time unflattering comparisons those robust and confident yahoo nations they birthed made them feel gauche in front of the French. Better to bend the knee, join the rest of the continent, call it futbol, and get cozy with the Davos set.

Who knows, things could revert with Brexit. Keep an ear out for what Farage is calling the game. Maybe the only English speakers left calling the British game football will be Americans with really good alarm clocks who wear scarfs when it’s still hot outside and sing John Denver songs between beer sips.

Tell your rude male relative that calling soccer “football” is global peer pressure, and we don’t give in to that sort of stuff. Not in this country. Not in measurements. Not in Kyoto. Not in sports. For that, we give thanks.

*While you’re at it, ask that relative why he doesn’t call ruggers, or Rugby Football, “football.” It came about the same way as Association Football. Stick a hobgoblin in his mind.

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