sporting English

Magpies and Quarterboys

Most football teams have nicknames, some of which are fairly transparent, and some of which are more opaque, for example the Toon or the Quarterboys.

Probably the least interesting way of referring to a club is to shorten the whole name, hence Manchester United are known as Man. U. while their close friends rivals are known as Man. City (can you guess their full name?). Other examples of simple abbreviations for English clubs are Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) and Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

A few of these shortenings are difficult to work out, though. Some clubs have the word Athletic in their name: Charlton Athletic and Wigan Athletic to name but two. In the case of Wigan, they use the last part of Athletic and corrupt it to the Latics, while Charlton mangle the beginning, and are the Addicks.

But there are other ways of deriving nicknames. Using the team’s colours is one way: the Blues (take your pick: Chelsea, Birmingham City…), the Bluebirds (Cardiff City), the Magpies (Newcastle United, who play in black and white), the Canaries (Norwich City, who play in Canary yellow). Still pretty dull.

More interesting are the ones which derive from the locality or from local trades. So Sheffield United are known as the Blades, because the city of Sheffield has a long and proud history of the steel industry in the city, making knives (among other things). Ipswich Town, surrounded by rural area and farms, are known as the Tractor Boys, while Stoke City, cradle of English industrial pottery, names its club the Potters. Unfortunately for Northampton Town, there’s a double-meaning to their nickname, which derives from the local trade of making shoes: the Cobblers (look up cobbler and then look up cobblers if you’re wondering). And if you’ve ever wondered why Arsenal are known as the Gunners (or even why they’re called Arsenal), it’s because this famous North London club actually began life in South London as Woolwich Arsenal. They had to drop the ‘Woolwich’ when they moved to Highbury, and an arsenal is a place where guns and ammunition are kept, hence the nickname the Gunners.

For a long time, Sunderland were known as the Rokerites, a name derived from their stadium, Roker Park. But in 1997 they moved to a new home, the Stadium of Light (think Estádio da Luz but with a soggier climate), and the club decided to let the fans vote for a new nickname. Now, they are the Black Cats and are probably the only club to have arrived at a nickname via a democratic process.

The Magpies (Newcastle United), are also known as the Toon – a reflection of the Geordie pronunciation of Town.

And the Quarterboys? You might not have heard of them yet. They’re my local team, Rye United, who play in division 1 of the Sussex County League. The name is a reference to the ‘boys’ in Rye’s medieval church clock tower that chime every quarter.

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Stephen Bullon


  • The Arsenal comment needs just a tiny degree of clarification. You say that Woolwich Arsenal “had to drop the ‘Woolwich’ when they moved to Highbury,” but in effect no one told them they had to at all. Indeed when, three years before Arsenal moved from south of the river to north, Millwall travelled in the other direction, but didn’t change their name, so now play in an area that has no relationship to their name.

    For the first year in north London, the club was officially called “Woolwich Arsenal FC” and the club made a lot of it being the continuation of the Woolwich club in its advertising. They changed the club name to “The Arsenal” at the end of their first season in the north of London (in 1914). Much of their early story is told in the novel “Making the Arsenal” which highlights one year in their history.

  • Thanks for the clarification, Tony. I must admit, I hadn’t realised that they retained the name ‘Woolwich’ for a year after they moved north.

  • Both of my sons were born in Peterborough, so in principle ought to be aficionados of ‘The Posh’. Have always wondered how Peterborough United got this nickname, so inspired by your piece Stephen, I checked it out. Apparently coined in 1921 and tied up with a collaboration between Peterborough and Fletton United, when the then manager of Fletton United was reportedly looking for ‘posh players for a posh new team’. Hilariously, I do recall the nickname was the subject of a potential lawsuit a few years back, when Peterborough United, bless ’em, started to to do a bit better and their nickname went a bit more mainstream – Victoria Beckham claimed that she wanted exclusive rights to it and had had it first, or some nonsense…

  • Thanks Kerry. Interesting one, the Posh. They don’t fit into any of the colour/locality/trades categories. And of course we could open a whole nother can of worms if we look at the origin of the word ‘posh’ in its meaning of high class. The folk etymology is that it stems from people travelling to India and back in the days of Empire. Those who were rich enough to get the first class cabins could stipulate that they wanted ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ thus ensuring that they did not suffer the worst of the heat. But there’s no real evidence for that etymology.

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