Why Do People Call Rock-Paper-Scissors "Roshambo"?

Linguists have some theories about how Rock, Paper, Scissors is also known as roshambo.
Linguists have some theories about how Rock, Paper, Scissors is also known as roshambo. / Jordan Lye/Moment/Getty Images

In some circles, the decisive game of Rock, Paper, Scissors goes by another name: roshambo. In the U.S., the term is more commonly used on the West Coast, especially in northern California. In 2016, the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley invited Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer to dive into the origins of the moniker roshambo.

According to certain legends, the term dates back to the Comte de Rochambeau, a French nobleman who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War (and gets a shoutout in hit musical Hamilton). His name served as a codeword at the battle of Yorktown, where he commanded the French troops.

However, “there’s no historical evidence of it going back to revolutionary times,” Zimmer told Lexicon Valley. The earliest known use of roshambo as a synonym for the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors is found in a 1936 book called The Handbook for Recreation Leaders, published in Oakland, California. That mention spelled it “ro-sham-beau.”

Zimmer says that the Comte de Rochambeau had no involvement with the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Versions of the game originated in China as far back as 1600 before spreading to Japan, where it was called “Jon Ken Pon.” The Japanese game eventually spread to Europe in the early 20th century, and made it to the U.S. in the 1930s.

Because the San Francisco area has long been home to a large population of East Asian immigrants, it’s likely that kids playing the early version of Rock, Paper, Scissors became familiar with the Japanese name Jon Ken Pon. While there’s little historical evidence to trace the change, Zimmer hypothesizes that Bay Area kids in the ‘30s ended up Americanizing the name (perhaps with the help of the Revolutionary War knowledge they picked up in history class) and transforming it into a word with similar cadence: “roshambo.”

Listen to the whole episode on Slate.