Sunday, 27 September 2015

Name of the Game

When giving a talk on the origins of pub names recently I invited questions from the audience for specific examples they would like to understand. It is something I do comparatively early as, and the same is true of my talks on place names, there are so many examples it is impossible to know which to specific names to cover - I learned a long time ago it is not good enough to prepare a list of local names, for the audience are more likely to ask about names out of the area.

I was asked for the origin of the pub name Fox & Goose. This has been corrupted for it was originally Fox & Geese, the change undoubtedly because signpainters insist on depicting this as the predator and its prey, when it is nothing of the kind. It is an advertisement, one telling potential customers there is a board game played within. Fox and geese is a variation on the classic and truly ancient game of strategy better known as Nine Men's Morris. An image of the game can be seen below, method of play I may well cover at a different time.

This made me think about other board games and the origins of these names. As a kid, assuming you are above a certain age, we all had the Compendium of Games for Christmas. This included the ubiquitous Ludo which, as any trivia buff will know, is named for the Latin for 'I play'. But what of the others, presumably these have some story to tell of their origins.

Nine Men's Morris seems the logical place to start, although the name is somewhat uncertain. The number is easy enough to see when we reveal there are also varieties known as Six Men's Morris and Twelve Men's Morris, with the 'men' also clearly why we often refer to pieces as such on a game board irrespective of the game. As already noted the game is ancient indeed, with evidence showing this was certainly played at least 3,500 years ago, and probably originated in the Middle East and thus the English name for the game is likely a corruption of 'Moorish'. Aside from the Fox and Geese name, it has also been called Mills, Merels, The Mill Game, Merrills, Merelles, Marelles, Morelles, Ninepenny Marl, Cowboy Checkers, and others.

Backgammon is known from at least the 13th century, and is thought to be 'back' because the oppoents are (hopefull) forced into turning back, while gamen is simply the Middle English origin of 'game'.

Chess came to English from Old French esches and was simply the name of the game, although the Modern French echec is used in the sense of 'check, blow, rebuff, defeat'. Originally the name is from Sanskrit, where chaturanga referred to 'four members of an army', these being elephants, horses, chariots and foot soldiers.

Checkers returns us to pub names again, where (in Britain) the name of the Chequers pointed out a board game similar to the modern version was played within. The name became popular as a pub name as it was soon used for a moneylender, something inn-keepers would often take up as a second string to their financial bow. Hence the name refers to the board. In Britain it is most often referred to as 'draughts', this thought to refer to the way pieces are 'dragged' across the board when making a move.

Mahjong was originally known in the Far East as maque meaning 'sparrow', although most often this is known as majiang among Mandarin-speaking Chinese today.

Parcheesi is a fairly recent introduction to English, which explains why it has changed so very little since adopted from the Hindi pachis meaning 'twenty-five' and the highest throw possible with the dice used. It seems likely the original name would still be in use were it not for the game being mass produced in 1892 and sold under the Parcheesi trademark.

Snakes and Ladders is also known as Chutes and Ladders in the USA, the American version down to the marketing of Milton Bradley who advertised it as "an improved version of England's famous indoor sport" - clearly Mr Bradley had no notion of British indoor sports! This came to Britain from India as a game intended to teach the benefits of virtue, being adapted for the British market but retaining the original snakes and ladders motifs. In India it was known as Moksha Patam, with moksha being the central concept of Hinduism and derived from the Sanskrit munc meaning 'free, release, let go, liberate' with patam meaning 'ladders'.

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