Games and Gambles

By Mark Nichol - 3 minute read

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This post lists and defines words stemming from game and gamble, both of which derive from the Old English word gamen, meaning “amusement,” “fun,” and “joy.”

A game is an activity for amusement or diversion, or a scheme or a tactic, and to make game of someone is to mock that person. In the first sense, the word may refer to an activity that has little or no equipment, such as tag, or to a game of chance or skill or a combination thereof—anything from a board game (one with a playing board with a design that facilitates playing the game, such as Monopoly) or a video game (also designed to regiment the procedure of playing the game) to an athletic or intellectual contest. (The second element of backgammon, the name for a particular board game, derives from gamen.)

Game also refers to various aspects of competition, such as a manner or aspect of playing (as in referring in American football to a “passing game,” which denotes a playing strategy focused on passing the ball rather than running with it). In plural form, it pertains to an organized set of competitions, as in “the Olympic Games.” Game also applies, by extension, to an activity on the analogy of amusement or competition, or as a pursuit that, like most games, has more or less established rules, such as in “the game of love.” (Game also serves as a synonym for specialty, as in “Office politics is not my game,” with the connotation that one has no interest in or talent for the referenced activity.)

Endgame refers to the latter stages of a chess game or, by extension, to the final stage of an action or process, generally with the connotation of a strategic goal. As an adjective, game means “motivated or prepared to participate” or “spirited” (gamely is an adverb that applies to engaging in an endeavor with one sensibility or the other), and gamelike pertains to something resembling or suggesting a game.

“Ball game” refers to a sport in which a ball is used, though, by extension, it pertains to any contest or any situation in general, as in the phrase “a whole new ball game.” (A game ball, meanwhile, is a ball used in a game and awarded to someone as a prize for their contribution to victory in the competition.) “Game play” refers to an established procedure for playing a particular game. A game face is an expression of concentration and determination shown by a competitor, a game plan is a strategy (the verb form is game-plan), and a game show is a broadcast program in which contestants compete in a quiz or some other activity or series of activities. A game changer (or game-changer) is an element or factor that alters the status quo. A gamer is a person who plays games, though the term almost invariably refers to someone who plays computer or video games.

Game is also the basis of a number of idiomatic phrases, which will be discussed in a future post.

From the notion of hunting and fishing as an endeavor carried out for amusement rather than or in addition to sustenance, wild animals hunted for both purposes, and the flesh of such animals, are called game.

Terms that include game and pertain to hunting or fishing include “game animal,” “game bird” or “game fowl,” and “game fish” (any species of various types of creatures that are hunted), as well as “game bag” (a sack for carrying carcasses of birds one has hunted). A game cock is a rooster trained to engage in cockfighting, and a game hen is a small species of fowl, while a gamekeeper is a person responsible for breeding and protecting game animals on a private estate or preserve. A game cart is a small horse-drawn cart, perhaps originally intended to carry game after a hunt. The adjective gamy (or gamey) can pertain to bravery or spirit, but it more usually applies to the smell of game animals or to an unpleasant smell in general, and it can mean “corrupt,” “salacious,” or “scandalous.”

To gamble is to play a game or engage in an activity in a game of chance, to bet, or to take a chance. A gamble is an act of taking a risk, or something risky, or the act of playing a game of chance; gaming also applies in the last sense. One who gambles is a gambler, and the activity of doing so is called gambling.

A gambling house, also known as a gaming house, is a place where gambling, legal or otherwise, takes place. (Such a location is also sometimes referred to as a gambling den or, from the notion of the addictive allure of gambling, a gambling hell.) A gaming room, meanwhile, is a room used for such purposes, and a gaming table is a piece of furniture, often customized to accommodate game equipment and game play, at which gamblers stand or sit to engage in gambling; a gambling device is a mechanism, such as slot machine, that facilitates gambling.

Gambit (“tactical move” or “topic”) and gambol (“frolic”) are unrelated, as is the sense of game meaning “lame,” as in the phrase “a game leg.”

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