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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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Big Questions
Why Do We Call People Blamed for Things 'Scapegoats'?
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From Marie Antoinette to the cow that reportedly caused the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, history is filled with figures who were single-handedly—yet often undeservedly—held responsible for epic societal failures or misdeeds. In other words, they became scapegoats. But what did goats (who are actually pretty awesome creatures) do to deserve association with this blameworthy bunch?

The word scapegoat was first coined by English Protestant scholar William Tyndale in his 1530 English translation of the Bible, according to David Dawson’s 2013 book Flesh Becomes Word: A Lexicography of the Scapegoat Or, the History of an Idea. Tyndale, who was deciphering Hebrew descriptions of Yom Kippur rituals from the Book of Leviticus, recounted a ceremony in which one of two goats was selected by lot. A high priest would place his hands on the goat’s head and confess his people's sins— thus transferring them to the animal—before casting it out into the wilderness to rid Israel of its transgressions. As for the other goat, it would be sacrificed to the Lord.

Tyndale coined the word scapegoat to describe the sin-bearing creature, interpreting the Hebrew word azazel or Azazel as ez ozel, or "the goat that departs or escapes." That said, some scholars have disagreed with his interpretation, claiming that Azazel actually stands for the name of a goat-like wilderness demon, whom the offering was meant for, or a specific location in the desert to where sins were banished, often thought to be a mountainous cliff from which the scapegoat was cast off and killed.

Over the centuries, the word scapegoat became disassociated with its Biblical meaning, and it eventually became used as a metaphor to describe a person who shoulders the blame of any wrongdoing. Now that you know the word's etymology, remember the poor animals that inspired it, and maybe resolve to go a little easier on the next person who ends up having to take the fall for everyone else's mistakes.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Neighborhoods
How 8 Twin Cities Neighborhoods Got Their Names
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Poetry, frogs, and … murder? Neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota were named after all three. Read on for the stories behind some of the Twin Cities’ many neighborhood names.

1. LONGFELLOW, MINNEAPOLIS

If the name rings a bookish bell, it should: The neighborhood was named after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the 19th century author who penned beloved poems such as The Song of Hiawatha. There is also the Longfellow Community, which includes the Longfellow neighborhood and several other smaller neighborhoods too, all of which have Victorian-era connotations. Howe was named after Julia Ward Howe, whose 1862 “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one of the United States’ most beloved patriotic songs. Cooper was ultimately named after James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Seward bears the name of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State. And Hiawatha shares its name with Longfellow’s famous poem, which in part tells the tragic story of an Ojibwe warrior and his love for a Dakota woman, Minnehaha. That name might ring a bell, too: It’s been bestowed on countless things in the region, including another Minneapolis neighborhood.

2. FROGTOWN, ST. PAUL

Frogtown has a more official-sounding name: Thomas-Dale. But the neighborhood has been known by an amphibian moniker for years. Nobody’s completely sure why. Theories range from a 19th-century bishop nicknaming the marshy area after its chorus of frogs to a German nickname for the croakers. Others suspect the word “frog” was meant as an ethnic slur to describe the area’s French residents [PDF] or that it was derived from a common nickname for the tool that’s used to switch railroad cars from track to track (the area was once home to two rail yards). It may never be clear which is true, but the neighborhood was built near swampy wetland—which could explain the ribbity label.

3. POWDERHORN PARK, MINNEAPOLIS

What sounds like a potentially violent place name is anything but. Instead, Powderhorn Park got its name from something that gives Minnesota its reputation as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”—a body of water. It’s just 12 acres, but Powderhorn Lake once bore a resemblance to the gunpowder containers toted by people in the days before paper (and later metallic) cartridges. (Modern cartridges hold bullets, gunpowder, and a primer; back then, the gun was primed by hand after pouring the gunpowder in.) The funnel-like device is now obsolete and once the lake became part of a municipal park, it lost its original looks. Still, the name remains, as does the grand Minnesota tradition of lake pride.

4. COMO PARK, ST. PAUL

That pride isn’t always well-founded—despite their majestic-sounding names, many of Minnesota’s lakes are, well, not so majestic. St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood got its name from Lake Como, which conjures up visions of the dramatic subalpine lake it’s named after. But even though the St. Paul lake is no pond, it’s not exactly as scenic as something you’d find in Italy. If the legend is to be believed, that didn’t concern the lake’s first white settler, a Swiss immigrant named Charles Perry, all that much, and he renamed the lake—known by the uninspiring name Sandy Lake—after the Alps he loved. However, there’s a competing and more likely theory. The lake might have been named not by Perry, but by a land speculator named Henry McKenty who profited from the Alpine association. Well, kind of: As the Park Bugle’s Roger Bergerson notes, McKenty lost everything in the Panic of 1857 and moved on, presumably to give dramatic monikers to other bodies of water.

5. HOLLAND, MINNEAPOLIS

You might assume that a neighborhood called Holland was named after its Dutch residents. In this case, you’d be wrong: Holland was named after a 19th century novelist named Josiah Gilbert Holland. Holland helped found Scribner’s Monthly, one of the most influential publications of its day. He was well known during his heyday, but not under his own name. Rather, he often published under the pseudonym “Timothy Titcomb.” In books like Titcomb’s Letters to Young People, Single and Married, Holland gave advice on everything from etiquette to romance. “Never content yourself with the idea of having a common-place wife,” he urged his male readers. “You want one who will stimulate you, stir you up, keep you moving, show you your weak points, and make something of you.”

6. DAYTON’S BLUFF, ST. PAUL

Lyman Dayton, the land speculator after whom Dayton’s Bluff is named, found a wife. But all too soon, she became a widow. Described as “an energetic, stirring, liberal, kind-hearted man,” Dayton came to Minnesota from New England and decided to buy up land east of St. Paul in the hopes of making his fortune. No matter that a large ravine separated his land from the city. His gamble ended up making sense for homeowners, who built their houses on top of the neighborhood’s rolling hills. Early residents were rich Germans who made the most of their views. But Dayton’s triumph didn’t last long: He was in poor health and died at just 55 years of age. His widow and only son ended up living in a nearby town that, appropriately, bore their last name. Today, Dayton, Minnesota is home to about 4600 residents.

7. BELTRAMI, MINNEAPOLIS

Many of Minneapolis’s neighborhoods bear the names of the developers who created them. Not so Beltrami. It’s named after Giacomo Beltrami, an Italian explorer and jurist who discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Or so he claimed. The restless Italian loved the Mississippi River and set out to discover where it came from. When he made it to the lake he named Lake Julia in 1823, he figured that was its source and spread the news far and wide. Of course, he was wrong: The mighty river’s head is actually at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota. Apparently Beltrami’s claim was taken with a grain of salt, even though the true source wasn’t identified until 1832. Beltrami eventually went back to Europe, but he’s still commemorated in Minnesota for his exploration and his dramatic accounts of the area.

8. PAYNE-PHALEN, ST. PAUL

Beltrami was dramatic, but the story of Edward Phelan (or Phalen), after whom a lake from which the Payne-Phalen neighborhood drew its moniker was partially named, makes the explorer’s life seem tepid. Phelan, an Irishman, was one of St. Paul’s first residents—and possibly its first murderer.

After being discharged from the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Snelling, he arrived in the St. Paul area, which had only recently been opened for settlement. That meant he had first dibs on land that few had even seen yet. However, Phelan’s empty pocketbook meant he had to join forces with a sergeant, John Hays, to buy up the land he wanted—a prime slice of real estate in what is now downtown St. Paul. Phelan, who was known for his temper, started farming with Hays. But then Hays disappeared—and when his mutilated body was found near a local cave, Phelan was the prime suspect [PDF]. Neighbors all contradicted Phelan’s version of the story, which was that Native Americans had attacked his former business partner. Phalen was found not guilty, but in the time the trial took Hay’s claim had been jumped, and since all of his neighbors felt he was guilty, Phalen moved away. Eventually he himself would be murdered on his way to finding fortune in California. Despite the distasteful associations, his name ended up on several St. Paul landmarks, including Lake Phalen, after which the neighborhood is named. As for Hays, his name has faded from memory—and as MPR News’ Tracy Mumford notes, it’s not even certain where his bones were buried.

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