What’s the Name of the Game?

Today is Amazing Words Wednesday, when we navigate the labyrinth of language together and see what interesting discovery we can find in the world of words.

Recently, I witnessed a game of duck, duck, goose among children. Perhaps you’ve played this game, in which individuals sit in a circle, an “It” is chosen who taps others’ heads and says “duck, duck, duck, duck…” until one child is deemed “goose,” at which point said Goose must chase It around the circle and tag him before It can sit down in Goose’s spot.

Fun game. But why birds?

Which got me to wondering about the names of other children’s games and where we got them.

Simon Says. Who is Simon? And why do we have to do what he says? This game is centuries-old and was originally called “Cicero dicit fac hoc”–Latin for “Cicero says do this.” In ancient Rome, when revered statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said to do something, you did it. (Well, at least until he picked a fight with Mark Antony, got assassinated, and had his head put on display.)

But that’s Cicero. Why Simon? Along came Simon De Montfort, a 13th century French-English noble, who commanded so much authority from those around him that he imprisoned King Henry III and replaced him with the era’s first democratic parliament. I suppose if your words outrank the king’s, you should be able to get schoolchildren to pat their heads and rub their tummies at the same time. Theoretically, of course. That’s awfully hard to do–especially while standing on one leg.

Red Rover. Here’s a game for which origin is uncertain. However, the name Red Rover was used for boats in 18th and 19th century America, such as the first U.S. Navy hospital ship commissioned in 1862. The Red Rover is also the title of a James Fenimore Cooper novel published in 1827, in which the sea pirate captain and his ship are called the Red Rover. Speaking of which, the word Rover is Norwegian for “pirate.” One theory is that English children were daring those nasty, pretend Viking raiders to “come over, come over.”

However, the game is often known as British Bulldogs and Octopus Tag in the U.K. and Australia, and a similar game in China is known as Forcing the City Gates.

The saddest thing about researching Red Rover was reading that the game has been banned in some playgrounds because it’s deemed too rough for children. Really? I know kids can fall and skin knees and all that, but I don’t recall any serious injuries from Red Rover. That was hardly the most dangerous thing we kids did back in the 1970s.

Ring around the Rosy. It is generally accepted that this cute hand-holding, falling-down children’s rhyme has its origins in a dark time of history–the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, of the Middle Ages. Despite scant written evidence that the rhyme and game date back to medieval times, the rhyme itself is rather convincing.

Ring around the rosy – The plague was partly characterized by a rosy rash that formed a ring on the sick person’s skin.

A pocket full of posies – Posies were placed in the pockets of recently deceased plague victims, in an effort to combat the stench of the disease.

Ashes, ashes – Many of the dead were burned.

We all fall down – Millions died, and the fear was that people would all eventually succumb to the Black Death plague.

When asked by my kids why anyone would take such an awful experience and translate it into a game for children, I suggested that we humans often look for ways to keep up our spirits in hard times. Children also look for ways to understand what is happening around them, and perhaps this rhyme helped. Then again, maybe the rhyme cropped up much later and only refers back to this time.

I see no harm in continuing to use the rhyme. When I taught a two-year-old class at church, the kids loved playing this game. They no more knew what a rosy ring was than they knew who Genghis Khan was.

Marco Polo. Speaking of Khan…here’s another one we don’t know, but the theories are awesome. Marco Polo was a 13th century explorer who traveled from Italy to the Far East. He spent 17 of his 23 years in China and returned to report about lands, inventions, culture, and dynasties that Europe knew nothing about. In fact, his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, was also known as Il Milione (“The Million Lies”), since many regarded his tales to be imaginative fiction.

Now for some of the theories on why a swimming hide-and-seek game was named after this explorer:

  1. Marco Polo because he had no idea where he was going, just like the one who yells “Marco” in the game. Actually, Marco did know where he was going. His father and uncle had traveled to Asia first and met with Kublai Khan (Genghis’s descendant); Marco accompanied these Polo brothers on their second trip to the land and stayed much longer.
  2. Marco once fell asleep on his horse and was separated from the caravan. When he awakened, lost and confused, he thought he heard his family yelling his name. He responded to their cries with “Polo!” to reconnect. Yes, Marco Polo did grow weary crossing the Gobi desert, but he doesn’t appear to have gotten lost.
  3. Marco eventually returned to Venice, stopping along the way in Persia to deliver the Mongol princess for marriage to a Persian prince. His trip was by sea, with several hundred passengers and sailors in the caravan. The turbulent voyage resulted in all but 18 people dying from storms and disease. Storm survivors clinging to debris in the sea called out to the ship for rescue by yelling “Marco!” to which the ship’s passengers responded, “Polo!” I could find no such story.

I read The Travels of Marco Polo, but since that was over 25 years ago, I don’t remember much. My own theory goes like this: Children like games. Children like explorers. Children like rhyming words. “Amerigo!” “Vespucci!” was too long. “Christopher!” “Columbus!” was too old hat. “Leif!” “Eriksson!” was not balanced. “Marco!” “Polo!” could be heard and understood all around the pool.

Hopscotch. Some suggest that Roman soldiers played this game to stay fit, but the most common belief is that Roman children drew these boxes and numbers for the game, and from there it became popular throughout Europe.

But why “hopscotch”? That’s hardly a Latin or Italian word. The first mention of the game appears in the Book of Games by Willughby and the Poor Robin’s Almanac–both from the 17th century. They called the game “Scotch-Hoppers.” “Scotch” here refers to the line separating the boxes (perhaps from scocchen meaning “to cut, score, gash”). And of course, one must hop from box to box. Flip that around, and you’ve got hopscotch.

Duck, Duck, Goose. This one is driving me crazy. It is played in one form or another in many cultures. Wikipedia asserts that the “Duck, Duck, Goose” game originated with Swedish immigrants in Lindstrom, Minnesota. The Swedish title is “Anka Anka, Gråttanka.” In Minnesota, however, it’s called “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck” (perhaps a better translation of the Swedish).

But none of that explains why ducks? Why a goose? Or  gray duck? Why not Dog, Dog, Cat? Why not Snake, Snake, Rabbit? What do ducks and geese have to do with sitting in a circle, tapping heads, and running around?

I don’t know. Do you?

Were you aware of the origin of these game names? What other children’s playground games would you like to know about?

Sources: Stonebridge Farm; Yahoo Games – Simon Who? The story behind a playground favorite; Biography.com – Marco Polo; Ask.com; Online Etymology Dictionary – Scotch; Sports KnowHow.com – History of Hopscotch; The Play & Playground Encyclopedia – Red Rover; James Fenimore Cooper Society; Goodreads – Red Rover, Red Rover; Online Etymology Dictionary – Rover

My love of language includes knowledge of word usage, grammar, punctuation, and more. If you are looking for a copy editor for your book, please check out my services by clicking the Copy Editing tab on the menu above.

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24 thoughts on “What’s the Name of the Game?

  1. What fun! Aside from the fact that I’ve got ABBA providing an enjoyable internal soundtrack for my morning now, you’ve gifted me with thoughts to entertain my brain in a big way. 🙂

    Duck, Duck, Goose: My vividly visual mind replaced children with a circle of ducks, and one feisty goose. I consider ducks to be placid creatures, while geese or more feisty. Perhaps there’s something in that?

    “Children like games. Children like explorers. Children like rhyming words. ‘Amerigo!’ ‘Vespucci!’ was too long.” Ha! 🙂 I’m not a mom, but I’m an aunt nine times over. I’m now wishing more than one of my team of nieces and nephews was pre-school age so I could teach them to play Amerigo Vespucci, and thus tweak their parents a wee bit. 😀

    1. Everything is better with ABBA in the background! (“Mamma Mia, here I go again…”)

      I like your theory on Duck, Duck, Goose. I agree that geese are feistier birds than ducks. Thanks, Ellen!

  2. What a mystery! I’ve always wondered about “Duck, Duck, Goose.” I played all these games as a kid. My high schooler’s tennis team played “Red Rover” as a team building game. LOL. Fun post, Julie!

  3. I had only heard about the origin of Ring Around the Rosy and that’s kind of depressing! The other games I didn’t know anything about their origins, though I know we played Marco Polo and Red Rover when I was a kid. I don’t know what children play now nor what my own kids played because I was never on the playground with them. However I do know that we played Hide and Seek in the evenings when I was growing up in the Bay Area and didn’t have to come inside until it got dark. Those were the days!

    1. I didn’t cover any games with names that made sense, like Hide-and-Seek or King-of-the-Hill (my husband’s favorite growing up). From what I can tell, kids play very similar games now. There are a few changes, like Cowboys-and-Indians became Cops-and-Robbers and now is more like Humans-and-Zombies. LOL.

  4. I, like Jennette, have heard of ring around the rosy but none of the others. I did hear that a pocket full of posies was thought to keep one safe from the plague.

    You don’t have a quirky curiosity but a healthy one.; )

  5. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to add to the origins of any of these games. I’ve always found it fascinating to discover the origins of things we take for granted 🙂 I agree with Ellen on the duck vs. geese thoughts. Of course, in my house there are more geese than ducks, LOL.

  6. Fun post, Julie. Yes, I’ve played all of these games, even taught my oldest Ring around the Rosy when he was a few years old. That’s when my FIL told me the origin, so sad. Now it’s the first thing I think of when I hear the game. I’m glad to have the background on the others. The duck and the goose…hmmm, I’ll ask my FIL.

    1. Like I said, I don’t think kids have any idea that the origins of Ring around the Rosy are sad. They just see it at a fun rhyming game! I didn’t tell my kids until they were much older.

  7. Great research, Julie! I knew about Ring Around the Rosy. I also played London Bridge and Catch a Tiger when I was a kid. My mother told us to stop playing the second game because it had racist undertones (yeah, who knew, and that was back in the early 70’s). Anyway, I’d be curious to learn more about those two children’s games if you ever do a follow-up to this post. 🙂

  8. What about the Farmer in the Dell? And I probably spelled that wrong. But you know the one I mean. “Hi ho the dario, the farmer in the dell.”

    1. Good one, Catie! Farmer in the Dell (hey, that’s correctly spelled) is a classic. Which also reminds me that I have no idea who Old MacDonald is and why we talk about his animals. I will have to do a follow-up post sometime soon! Thanks.

  9. I believe Duck, Duck, Grey Duck was a Scandinavian game based on the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling”. In the story the ugly duckling is described a few times as “a grey odd looking duck”. The game replaces the feeling of isolation the vocal taunting by the normal ducklings causes the ugly ducking with an actual physical isolation of the child tapped as the grey duck.

    The first traces of the game in the US was a Swedish settlement/town in Minnesota called Lindstrom,The Swedish name for it was indeed “Anka Anka, Gråttanka” and that does translate roughly to Duck, Duck, Grey Duck.

    I have no idea why the other 49 states call it Duck, Duck, Goose.

    1. I’m from Minnesota and I have to say Clarence is correct. However I’m not sure that there’s any definitive way to prove as this explanation isn’t in any reliable reference book I’ve seen. It’s just the story that’s been handed down, but I don’t think anybody has officially written it down any where.

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