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11 Game Names and Their Fun-Filled Origins

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We have many games to while away long days, but where do these words like poker and hopscotch come from? Here’s the etymological past of 11 pastimes enjoyed by young and old.

1. POKER

The ultimate origin of the word poker, first attested in 1832 in American English, holds its cards close to its chest. According to one popular theory, poker comes from a similar German card game called Poch or Pochspiel, based on the verb pochen. Pochen literally means “to knock,” evidently referring to the way Poch players would rap the table when passing on a bid. It also figuratively means “to boast or brag,” highlighting the importance of bluffing in the game. Further upping the etymological ante, the English word poke is related to German’s pochen and an earlier version of the game was called brag during the early 1700s.

2. BRIDGE

The trick-based game of bridge has a reputation for its difficulty—and so, too, the origin of its name. Emerging in the record in the latter half of the 1800s, bridge appears to be an alteration of biritch, a term historically associated with Russian whist. (The two games are indeed very similar.) As there’s evidence for early forms of bridge in the Middle East, some etymologists have connected biritch to the Turkish bir-üç, “one-three,” supposedly describing a part of gameplay where one player shows their hand while the other three make tricks on it.

3. PINOCHLE

The origin of pinochle is also a bit blurry. Attested in the 1860s, this trick-and-meld card game was popularized by German immigrants in the United States. This leads some scholars to root the word in the German Binokel, borrowed from the French binocle, “spectacles,” especially the pince-nez. (Binocle comes from the Latin for “two-eyed,” source of the English binoculars.)

What could this card game have to do with glasses? In the game, the combination of the Jack of Diamonds and Queen of Spades is itself called a pinochle. These two cards traditionally featured the royal faces in profile—and thus showing only two eyes, or binocle. Another suggestion notes the game was historically played with two decks. These explanations, though, have some etymologists rubbing their eyes.

4. BACKGAMMON

What is the gammon in the ancient board game of backgammon? And what is the back for that matter? The gammon seems to come from the Middle English gamen, source of the modern “game,” while back apparently describes how playing pieces have to reenter, or go back to, the board if the opponent knocks them out of play. First evidenced in the mid-1600s, backgammon was usually called tables between the early 14th and 18th centuries.

5. TIC-TAC-TOE

Speaking of backgammon, the name of this children’s grid of X’s and O’s may be a playful extension of tick-tack, an old version of backgammon, whose name apparently imitates the sound of the pieces on the board. For similar reasons, tic-tac-toe (also spelled tick-tack-toe) may instead take its name from the sound of pencil on slate, a way the game was originally played. First evidenced in the late 1800s, earlier—and equally onomatopoeic—terms include tip-tat-toe and tit-tat-toe. In the UK, the game is known noughts and crosses, after its O’s and X’s.

6. AND 7. CHESS AND CHECKERS

The word chess made its opening move on the English language as early as 1300, borrowed from the French name for the game, eschec—also the source of checkers. And you thought chess was hard.

The French eschec ultimately comes from the Persian shah, “king,” referring to the most important piece in chess. Adopted into Arabic, shah was used in the phrase shah mat, literally “the king is dead,” which yielded the French eschec mat, and then the English checkmate, which ends the game. The Barnhart Dictionary of English Etymology, it’s worth noting, maintains that Arabic confused the Persian mata, “to die,” with mat, “to be astonished,” making checkmate, more accurately, “the king is stumped.”

The French eschec became the English check, first used in the early 1330s for the call made in chess when a player has threatened the opponent’s king. The action of checking in chess inspired a host of metaphorical extensions in English, including check’s senses of “stop” and “examine.” A bank check, incredibly, also comes from chess, originally a kind of receipt used to check forgery or alteration in the 1790s.

Related to eschec is eschequier, French for “chessboard,” which became checker in English, chequer in the UK. The earliest use comes in the 1170s, naming a table on which accounts were reckoned. Such tables, as it goes, were historically covered in cloth whose pattern resembled a chessboard. Checker went on to name the game of chess (1290s), then its signature board of 64 squares alternating in color (1330s). On the basis of this board, American English adopted checkers as early as the 1710s for the game, which UK players know as draughts. The distinctive pattern of a chessboard also explains checkered.

8. HOPSCOTCH

The hop in this schoolyard jumper is clear enough, but what about the scotch? Taking the earlier forms of scotch hoppers (1670s) and hop-scot (1780), the scotch in hopscotch is an old term for “score” or “notch,” referring to the lines scratched into the ground to form the boxes of the game. Scotch, no relation to Scotland, was also used in the expression out of all scotch and notch, or “without limits.”

9. TIDDLYWINKS

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first attests the name of this game, which involves carefully flicking little disks into a cup, in 1857. The game itself began in Victorian parlors, but as for its name? It may just be nonsense, with tiddly as baby talk for “little.” The OED does find, however, a tiddlywink in 1844, meaning an “unlicensed bar or pawnshop.” This tiddly was slang for “alcoholic drink” or “slightly drunk.” Based on the game, tiddlywinks went on as expression for something “trivial” or “insignificant.”

10. DIBS

If you call dibs on something (e.g., the last slice of pizza or the next round of tiddlywinks), you are claiming a right to it before anyone else does. This colloquial saying may originate from a children’s game known as dibs, which was played much like jacks—except it used sheep knucklebones. These bones were called dibstones (1690s), later shortened to dibs (1730s). The pronged shape of modern jacks may even imitate the knobs of sheep’s knuckles. As for the origin of dib, it may be a variant of dab, “to tap lightly,” an action central to the game. The “first claim” sense of dibs emerges in the 1920 or '30s, possibly reinforced by the 19th-century slang term dibs, “money” or “portion,” shortened from division.

11. TAROT

Before being used in fortune-telling in the late 18th century, tarot referred to a special set of numbered and suited playing cards, first used by the Italians in the 14th century. Via French, tarot comes from the Italian tarocchi, of obscure origin. Many have tried to divine the deeper roots of tarocchi, though. One suggestion points to the Arabic turuq, or “ways,” possibly referring to the different suits of tarot cards. Another proposes the Arabic taraha, or “rejected,” perhaps alluding to trump cards in games played with tarots.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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