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

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