11 Game Names and Their Fun-Filled Origins
By John Kelly
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.