Why is a football called a pigskin?

Hello again!

As promised, I have tried to find the answer to the question “Why is a football sometimes called the pigskin?”

Howie Long and John Czarnecki, in their book, Football for Dummies, p. 26, explain that the modern NFL football must be a Wilson brand and bear the signature of the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell.  The ball is made of “an inflated rubber bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case of natural tan color without grooves or ridges of any kind.”  Id, p. 26.  In addition, “to make it easier to grip and throw,” the football also has “eight raised white laces in its center.”  Id., p. 26.  Its shape is known as a prolate spheroid, which is a fancy geometrical term for an oblong ball with pointy ends.  There is nothing in this description to understand why one nickname for a football is “the pigskin”;  the answer to that question requires tracing football back to its much more primitive medieval roots.

A Modern Football

The medieval antecedents of football, and soccer for that matter, were much wilder affairs than the current sports.  They were often referred to as “mob football.”  Basically one of the simplest forms of the game, these mob football matches were played between neighboring villages and towns, and the goal of the game was for one village team or the other to get an inflated pig’s bladder to markers set up at each end of the town by any means possible.  There were essentially no rules, and no limits on the number of players, so it typically was a very violent, chaotic game.

William FitzStephens, who worked as a clerk for Thomas Becket when Thomas was murdered in the cathedral by henchman of Henry II in 1170, also wrote a history of London, in which he included the following description of a type of football game played on Shrove Tuesday:

After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.

In a verse written sometime in the 12th century about St. Hugh, an archbishop of Lincoln who, by the way, is known in part for the swan that remained his faithful companion for years, even guarding him while he slept, is found the first confirmation that the medieval game of football involved kicking:

Four and twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball.. he kicked the ball with
his right foot.

The next reference is from 1514, and in this description of early football by Alexander Barclay, a resident of the South East of England, another reference is found to a pig’s bladder:

They get the bladder and blowe it great and thin,

with many beanes and peason put within,

It ratleth, shineth and soundeth clere and fayre,

While it is throwen and caste up in the eyre,

Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite,
with foote and hande the bladder for to smite,

if it fall to the ground they lifte it up again…

Overcometh the winter with driving the foote-ball.

A further clue is found in the oldest ball recovered so far that probably was used in some kind of football game.  Displayed in the Stirling Smith museum connected to Stirling Castle in Scotland, this ball is made of a pig’s bladder surrounded with a sewn leather cover.


Oldest surviving football in the world, dated to about 1540

So, basically, a football is called a pigskin because the medieval precedents of the game used an inflated pig’s bladder covered with sewn leather to make the ball.  Why the term was “pigskin” when in fact it was the pig’s bladder that was used is a mystery hidden in the mists of time.  If I had to guess, I would have to stay that it probably just sounded better.

Have a great rest of the week, and I’ll talk to you again by Friday!


P.S.  In writing this post, I am deeply indebted to the wikipedia article on the subject of medieval football, which can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_football.



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