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What's in a Game? A Linguistic History of
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Wed Oct 9th, 2002
last revision: 12:00 AM Wed Oct 9th, 2002

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By Jeff Luther

Here at Gamesfirst! we like to talk about games--interactive art, we'll tell you, and the future of art and storytelling?a force more powerful and more frightening than its parent, the movie, or its grandparent, the stage?both terrifying in their own way, in their own time. But did you ever wonder where the word "videogame"came from? "Video" meets "game"--it sounds like a pretty straightforward etymology to get to the word that brings us all so much joy, but what we have here is a strange union between two ancient words who's roots stretch across recorded time?and further, in fact, into the dark night of prerecorded time.

Videogame being composed of two equally interesting parts, let's start our examination with the word "game". In our everyday language we use game (in the videogame sense) in two unique ways. The first definition is captured fairly well by the Oxford English Dictionary: "video game, a game played by electronically manipulating images displayed on a television screen" (found in video). The second refers to the narrative structure, supported in a visual medium, which distinguishes itself from film by virtue of its interactivity?as in "The dialogue in that game is horrible". The growth of DVD's and their interactive elements complicates this definition. Many movies have features that ask you to push buttons at certain times to find extra information or see new scenes, thus blurring the line between game and film. Nevertheless, I think my definition is as close as anyone has come and it should suffice for our purposes here.

Game has a long and prolific history. The oldest forms are "gamen" from Old English, "game" and "gome" of Old Frisian, and Old High German's "gaman", all of which generally meant "joy, glee". From approximately the same time, Old Norse offers "gaman", meaning "game, sport, merriment", from which came the modern Swedish "gamman" and the modern Danish "gammen", which both mirror the Old Norse meaning (OED). From these sources we also see the Gothic use of "gaman" which meant "participation, communion" (OED). Since cognates of "game" appear in all of these languages, we are presented with two possible inferences as to its origin: Proto-Germanic or Proto-Indoeuropean. Neither language can provide us a direct parent word since both languages existed before writing. However, we can still make inferences on the origin of "game". The absence of cognate forms of "game" in languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, and Proto-Celtic seems to rule out the possibility that the present-day English "game" descended directly through Proto-Indoeuropean, since all of these languages descended from Proto-Indoeuropean as well. Therefore, we have to assume that game has arrived in English through Proto-Germanic, where it was either originally formed or borrowed from an unknown or unidentified language.

The meaning, however, seems to have come to us relatively intact, until the present day widening identified with videogames. As we discussed earlier, Old Norse had "gaman: ˜game, sport, merriment'". This has either arrived relatively intact directly from Old Norse?presumably through Old or Middle English, or Present-Day English has arrived coincidently at a nearly identical sense of the word from a different cognate. I prefer the first possibility as it is the simplest explanation, and there doesn't seem to be any immediate reason to suspect it. An unclear translation of Beowulf's "Gamen eft astah / beorhtode benc-sweg" (trans: "Then glad rose the revel / benchjoy brightened") (OED), complicates the problem of arriving at a sense of "gamen" during the crux of Old English and Middle English and so complicates our deduction. Contrary evidence to my suspicion of a descent from Old Norse may be present in Chaucer's 1386 use: "His murie men comanded he To make hym bothe game and glee" (OED). This meaning seems to more accurately reflect the meaning found in Old High German and Old English, though in my defense it's possible that the Old Norse sense of the word existed in Middle English simultaneously.

The connection between Gothic's "gamen", meaning "participation, communion" and the modern sense of game (videogame) intriguing. The OED identifies communion as: "Sharing or holding in common with others; participation; the condition of things so held, community, combination, union", and also, "Fellowship, association in action or relations; mutual intercourse". This sense of game helps capture much of the nuance implicit in the very act of engaging in a complex narrative activity with people spread, literally, across the world.

Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins helps clarify the development of the Gothic sense of "game". Ayto notes, "The prehistoric Germanic compound formed from the collective prefix ga- and mann-˜person'(source of English man), and is denoting literally ˜people together, participating" (248). This "collective" is an important element in many of the uses of game in the videogame sense?far more than is apparent in the sense of basketball game, or a game of Monopoly. For example, consider the acronym MMORPG?massively multiplayer online role playing games, which are games in which thousands of players are involved in the same super-narrative at the same time?potentially seeing and speaking with every other character (person) in the game and traversing the same computer generated landscape. This is a split from the more traditional sense of game (videogame) as a solitary act between one person and a computer. This usage mirrors the Gothic use of the word, but with no clear path of descent into Present Day English, it is probably just coincidence?yet the similarities are intriguing.

So to summarize, our sense of "game" as in "videogame" likely arrived in Present Day English from Middle English, which borrowed the meaning directly from Old Norse, which in turn borrowed the word form from Proto-Germanic, where the roots are lost in the murk of prerecorded time.

Video followed an equally intriguing path on its way to "videogame", but at first the etymological trail is rather underwhelming. "Video" was borrowed from Latin's "videre" which means "to see". Latin's "video" meaning "I see" even has the same spelling. At first it seems as though our etymology ends here, but upon digging deeper we find a far more ancient root.

The Latin "videre" is a descendant from the Proto-Indoeurpoean "weid". Among the many words in Present Day English that are derivatives of "weid" are guide, wisdom, kaleidoscope, Hades, unwitting, envy, idea, history, and penguin--among many more (American Heritage Dictionary of Etymological Roots). The fact that wisdom is related to history is very intriguing?the discovery that they are both connected to "videogame" is even more so, but the fact that they're both related to penguin hints at a story needing to be told, so I'll touch on this later.

Also found in Present Day English from "weid-" is twit from Old English "w-tan" meaning " to reproach".?also "guide and guidon", which have descended to us from Old Proven├žal "guidar", which meant "to guide" (AHD). Also from the prerecorded "weid" we get the Latin all-star "videre" and its many descendants including view, visa, voyeur, advice, advise, clairvoyant, envy, evident, interview, review, survey, and many more.

And in case you're curious about how prolific the videogame root "weid" has been used in other languages, derivatives make an appearance in Old French "guier" meaning "to guide" and "guise", which means "manner". In Old High German we see "wzag", which meant "knowledgeable". And in Old English we have "wise and wisdom" the meaning of which arrives more or less intact in Present Day English. The suffixed form "weid-es" gave Greek eidos, "form, shape"?to give you another videogame reference?which arrived in English as "idol and kaleidoscope", among others. Celtic's "druid"--originally "dru-wid", meaning "seer"?also descends from "weid" and so is related linguistically to "videogame". To complete the process, "weid" makes an appearance in Sanskrit as "veda", meaning "knowledge". As you can see, "weid" seems to be an extraordinarily prolific word, and the above is designed to show the range of "weid", but not every manifestation.

So to summarize once again "video" in the sense of videogame came into English as a borrowed word from the Latin "videre". In turn, "videre" descended into Latin from "weid" of Proto-Indoeuropean, which leant the same root to hundreds of other Present Day English words and dozens of languages. At Proto-Indoeuropean we lose the etymology in the fog of pre-literacy.

Incidentally, penguin seems to derive from the Welsh "pen gwyn", which means "white head" and is the "name of an island in Newfoundland" (AHD), and is also a derivative of "weid", and therefore is a linguistic cousin of "videogame". Feel free to use that last bit to win a bar bet, or even better, use it next time you're in a social gaming situation. Astound your friends with your wisdom (also a linguistic cousin of videogame) before you take them down.

Work Cited

American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fourth Edition.  Houghton Mifflin Company 2000. 20 September 2002. http://www.bartleby.com/61.

Ayoto, John. Dictionary of English Word Origins. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993.

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 20 September 2002. <http://www.oed.com>