Why English has so many terms for sports officials

In sports, is it the judge, umpire, referee, or official who makes sure that everyone is playing by the rules? When it comes to the English language, it soon becomes clear that there are many different terms for the same thing in different sports. We’re looking at why in English there are so many different terms for sports officials.

Getting it right

People can tell if you don’t know the sport they love by the way you describe the officials to them. For instance, in tennis the judge overlooks the game in front of them, but in soccer it’s a referee, or in baseball it’s the umpire.

They are all essentially the same thing, an official person who remains impartial to both sides, and who is there to ensure the game is played fairly. If referees, umpires, and judges all do the same thing in sports, then why do they have to be named different things?

Not universal

The changing of the name for the official is largely something that is done in English and in other languages the name remains the same. In Japanese, the official is called the shinpan while in French they are the arbitre. Those names are consistent throughout all sports in Japan and France, with sometimes an addition to identify who is the main official and who are the assistants.

In football, the terminology isn’t even consistent with the number of officials who keep track of the games. The overall person in charge of a football game is known as the referee, but there are also several judges who look out for specific things. There’s also an umpire alongside judges in charge of the line, downs, back, field, and side. It would be far easier if all of these officials had one universal name, but they do not.

Mixed up beginnings

All sports were not created at the same time, though many of them were created in either the UK, Canada, or the United States. That means the common language between them is English, but many of these sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball, football, and lacrosse, do not use the same term for official.

They were not created at the same time, or by the same people, so whoever was doing the making up of the rules must have chosen different terms for officials. Perhaps because many of these sports do not share a similar playing style, the creators were looking to differentiate them from other games.

From the outside looking in

Perhaps the reason why so many languages like French, Japanese, Arabic, and Chinese all use a consistent term for ‘official’ is that they come from an outside perspective. It was English-speaking people who largely codified the most popular sports in the world, and they were free to choose whatever term they wanted for official. By not being there at the beginning, countries like France and Japan were able to give the officials the same name across the board.

The exception

While the countries outside of those Anglicize ones use a consistent term, not all of them do. Spanish is the exception to the rule and follows the English-speaking method of naming officials. Ampayer is used for baseball umpires, while a soccer referee is an arbitro, and when it comes to tennis, the term juez is used to mean judge.

In general, many sports were created by different English-speaking people free to choose whatever term they wanted for their ‘officials.’ The rest of the world simply learned to play the games once they had been introduced and chose to use a consistent term. Well, at least in most cases that’s true, except for Spanish for some unknown reason.