11 Game Names and Their Fun-Filled Origins

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iStock

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.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.