Footling Foosball.

I just discovered that two words, neither of which is part of my active vocabulary, have alternate pronunciations on which dictionaries disagree. Merriam-Webster says footling ‘inept; trivial’ is either \ˈfü-təl-iŋ\ (three syllables, as would be expected for the participle of the verb footle) or \ˈfüt-liŋ\ (two syllables, rhymes with BOOT-ling), while American Heritage gives only the latter. Meanwhile, AHD says foosball ‘table soccer’ is FOOS-ball, as I would expect, whereas M-W gives only \ˈfüz-ˌbȯl\, as if it were a ball belonging to a guy named Foo. Since any intuitions I might have in the matter are worthless, I turn to the Varied Reader. If you use either or both of these words, how do you say it or them? Two syllables or three; FOOS or FOOZ?


  1. I don’t use footling, but the disagreement about its pronunciation reminds me of the phrase nestling bird, which occurs in a hymn and which I assume is pronounced like nest + -ling, rather than like the homograph formed from nestle + -ing (three syllables and no /t/).

    For foosball I believe I’ve used both /s/ and /z/.

  2. I like FOOS, as it resonates with my German training, but my local dialect community seems to prefer FOOZ.

  3. Whilst not an everyday word, footling is certainly not arcane in BrE. Googling UK broadsheets gets you a lot of hits. As far as I am aware it is only pronounced ˈfuːtlɪŋ in BrE.
    Foosball is new to me. In BrE I believe this is called table-football.

  4. I say /ˈfuːzˌbɔːl/, and this is how I’m used to hearing people say it. It’s probably a spelling pronunciation. Without knowing the etymology, an English-speaker is likely to interpret “oos” as /uːz/ rather than /uːs/, because the latter is more likely to be written “oose”.

  5. I have only ever heard “foosball” with a [z]. It also seems much more reasonable to me since my other native language has voicing assimilation 😀

    I guess I’ve never heard “footling” pronounced since my instinct would have been to put an [ʊ] in it — like a baby foot.

  6. I say “foos” if I’m being careful, but it can tend toward “fooz” in casual speech (which any speech involving foosball likely is).

  7. It sounds like FOOZ is what people actually say, and only those who, as RL says, know the etymology are likely to use /uːs/, AHD, take notice!

  8. The table game of this type that I knew, back in the day, was table hockey.

    As for footling, like F I have always pronounced it as in foot, and did not know there was a verb footle. Note that there is a distinct adjective and adverb footling, describing the kind of breech birth in which one or both feet come out first; this is indeed pronounced as in foot, per the OED.

  9. Canadian/American here.

    1. Foosball: pronounced with a z, and have never heard anyone pronounce it with an s. (Although I knew that theoretically it’s from German and therefore theoretically could/should have the s sound.)

    2. a) I’m startled to learn there’s a verb, “footle”! b) It’s an “I’ve only ever read it” word for me. c) My vague mental pronunciation is just like F’s, above: as if it were a baby foot!

  10. I, too, have always assumed that the first syllable of footling sounds like foot, but I suppose I’ve never heard the word spoken.

    I don’t voice the s in foosball, but I’ve long been used to the fact that many people do.

  11. (And I thought footling had two syllables, and I never thought of there being a word footle.)

  12. I only ever heard one person say it, and he used /z/.

    Is there any dispute about the vowel? Is it possible to use the vowel in ‘foot’ rather than the vowel in ‘goose’? That would make it sound closer to ‘football’.

  13. I’ve only ever heard foosball with a [z], and on footling I’m with the people who mentally pronounce it with the vowel of foot, though I’m not sure I’ve ever either said it or heard it pronounced.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    The notion of “to footle,” which is not a verb in my own apparently-limited lexicon, puts me in mind of “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled.”

    I don’t think I have had much occasion to either say foosball aloud myself or hear it pronounced in the over quarter century since my undergraduate days. So my memory of /s/ predominating over /z/ in the usage of those with whom I played it back during the Reagan administration may just be unreliable, or may reflect now-archaic usage. Or perhaps some third thing.

  15. When i was introduced to the game in Vancouver, B.C., back in the early 70s, the people I knew who played it pronounced it FOOSball. It’s primarily a pub game, and I’m not a drinker, so I don’t know if that pronunciation is still current.

  16. If you were to go to just about any college fraternity house or tech startup in America, there would be a FooZball table (like ooze). In Germany this is also extremely popular, but is usually called ‘kicker’.

  17. Also. There was a very funny episode about foosball on the show ‘Community.’ See this clip on youtube

  18. Sorry for the triple post here, but this clip also discuses the etymology of foosball:

  19. I thought the three syllable pronunciation for footling sounded familiar, but then realised that I am far more likely to be footering – which may or may not be the same thing!

  20. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I’ve never come across foosball before, and I shan’t be all that upset if I never come across it again. I agree with Alex about footling, both that it is an everyday word in British English and in the way he pronounces it.

  21. I met “foosball” via “Friends”, where it was /z/ with IIRC a hyperenunicated /z/ at that. I have only called it “table football” or “table soccer”. Did Lawrence Patterson coin the spelling “foosball” in the hope it would be pronounced by anglophones like German “fußball”? If so, it was a naive attempt to reach a pointless goal. I would rather think it was a deliberately silly distortion appropriate for a light-hearted product.

    For me, “footling” has three syllables, like “piffling”, “piddling”.

  22. Foosball I only know from American TV (where I heard it pronounced with /z/); footle / footling is barely in even my passive vocabulary. But let me introduce you to fooster, “Anglo-Irish” (Hiberno-English) for “bustle” according to the OED, with these examples:

    1847 J. S. Le Fanu T. O’Brien 25 Where is it you’re going, my colleen Beg, in all this foosther?
    1850 N. & Q. 1st Ser. 2 153 Full of fun and fooster, like Mooney’s goose.
    1892 J. Barlow Irish Idylls III. 56 The hen that had foosthered off with herself down the bog.

    My grandmother (b. 1906) used to use this for pottering, or ineffectual rummaging and the like. I don’t think I’ve heard it since she died. She used the dentalised /t/ reflected in the “foosther” spellings. OED doesn’t hazard an etymology at all, but I wonder whether there might be a connection with footle (“of obscure origin; compare footer“, which in turn is “? variant of foutre“), or whether there’s an element of shared sound symbolism.

  23. But let me introduce you to fooster,

    Thanks very much for that delightful word!

  24. mollymooly: you really pronounce ‘piffling’ with three syllables, same as ‘piddling’?

  25. A question to native speakers: would the ‘three-syllable’ pronunciation really be [ˈfu.tə.liŋ], or would it be more correctly [ˈfutl̩ing], with an ambisyllabic [l]? The same could go with any similar form, like meddling.

  26. would the ‘three-syllable’ pronunciation really be [ˈfu.tə.liŋ], or would it be more correctly [ˈfutl̩ing], with an ambisyllabic [l]?

    The latter, in my dialect.

  27. J. W. Brewer says

    By sheer coincidence I just this morning heard my middle child (aged 11, native AmEng speaker) say “foosball,” which is not a word I can recall ever previously having heard her or her older sister utter. She used /z/ rather than /s/, contrary to my perhaps imperfect recollection referenced above of how my college contemporaries who played it with me pronounced the word back in the 1980’s.

  28. Man, I love coincidences. Thanks for reporting it!

  29. David Marjanović says

    I knew nothing of this. PATTERSON!!!

    Those kinds of German that have voiced plosives, BTW, assimilate voice in the other direction, so that the /b/ of Fußball is voiceless. And I don’t think I’ve ever encountered Kicker, only Tischfußball; kicken for playing real soccer is widespread, though.

  30. “you really pronounce ‘piffling’ with three syllables, same as ‘piddling’?” Sometimes and yes;

  31. “And I don’t think I’ve ever encountered Kicker, only Tischfußball; kicken for playing real soccer is widespread, though.”

    I live in Germany. Today. And I work in a major scientific institute. Every single day there is a huge line of very intelligent native germans waiting to play ‘kicker’ after lunch.

    And every night there are lines of them waiting to play ‘kicker’ after a few beers.

  32. Yeah, David is Austrian. They speak a different language. 😉
    Jokes aside, for me Tischfußball is the official word, Kicker is what it’s called in real life, and I think that’s typical for at least most of Northern and Western Germany.

  33. I agree that to footle about is a quite ordinary expression in England. It means to waste time. Three-syllable footling means insignificant. I’m guessing they’re more common in northern England. It may be coincidence but I had a Yorkshire Geography master at school, born around 1920, who used both all the time.

    Fussball I’ve always known as babyfoot. I think babyfoot is, or was in the 1960s, the French name; at any rate that’s where I first heard it.

  34. a quite ordinary expression in England

    Ordinary but a bit old-fashioned, I should have said.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, David is Austrian. They speak a different language. 😉

    Well, yes. By German standards, Czech and Polish are the same thing, for example.

  36. Foosball with /s/, in Oregon forty years ago, which is the last time I remember hearing it.

  37. I learned the game in Oregon too (closer to thirty years ago). However, just the other day, I played a couple games with a friend and both of our kids (all raised in South Carolina); I think they all said FOOZ-ball, unlike me.

  38. We’re witnessing language change in operation, folks.

  39. @David Marjanović: I think that kind of progressive voicing assimilation happens in English too, in words like “textbook,” but I’ve never subjected my pronunciation to any kind of formal phonetic analysis. It’s definitely present for me in “disgust,” but I don’t know if that’s a lexicalized exception or if it’s the product of a rule that’s still active in my sound system.

  40. David:

    That’s all right: by American standards, Bohemians and Hungarians are the same thing.

  41. And I’m not altogether sure our cats make a clear category distinction between us and the large, friendly Labrador retriever who occasionally hangs out here. The Lab doesn’t give them food, but then neither does the electrician.

  42. I’m trying to figure out whether disgust and discussed are perfect homonyms for me. I THINK they are both unaspirated voiceless, but the /g/ in disgust may be somewhat more uvular.

  43. “Bohunk” = one of those gabbling non-Krauts from Austr(al)ia.

  44. The homophony of “disgust” and “discussed” was something I noticed as a kid. I found it disconcerting, since I felt like there should be a clear difference in voicing between the two. However, I recognized that I actually said them exactly the same.

  45. David Marjanović says

    I think that kind of progressive voicing assimilation happens in English too

    Yes; maybe whether it happens depends on whether there’s a perceived morpheme boundary.

  46. “The homophony of “disgust” and “discussed” was something I noticed as a kid.”

    Not actually related to the topic, but this reminded me immediately of a recent situation where I went back to the town where I grew up, to see family. My 6 year old nephew was being lightly made fun of by his kindergarten friend for the way he pronounced the word crayon.

    I remembered having almost the same argument they were having when I had entered kindergarten over 30 years before. I had only heard the word spoken as ‘kran’ before that time. And this was exactly how my nephew was saying it.

    Probably my first truely memorable introduction to the fact that words are not perfect singular unchangable objects.

  47. Fascinating, thanks for sharing it!

  48. “Fascinating, thanks for sharing it!”

    My own children have all grown up bilingual, so I suppose they will never get to experience that moment.

  49. I´m always heard table football, foossball is new for me. And the german version kicker is interesting. In Spain (europe) called “futbolín” (small football)

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