Here at Gamesfirst! we like to talk about games--interactive art, well
tell you, and the future of art and storytellinga force more powerful
and more frightening than its parent, the movie, or its grandparent, the
stageboth 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 whos roots stretch across recorded
timeand further, in fact, into the dark night of prerecorded time.
Videogame being composed of two equally interesting parts, lets
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 interactivityas in "The
dialogue in that game is horrible". The growth of DVDs 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
Germans "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
Norsepresumably 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 doesnt seem to be any immediate reason to
suspect it. An unclear translation of Beowulfs "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 Chaucers 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 its possible that the Old Norse sense of the word existed in
Middle English simultaneously.
The connection between Gothics "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.
Aytos 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 sensefar more than is apparent in
the sense of basketball game, or a game of Monopoly. For example,
consider the acronym MMORPGmassively multiplayer online role playing
games, which are games in which thousands of players are involved in the
same super-narrative at the same timepotentially 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
coincidenceyet 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
Video followed an equally intriguing path on its way to "videogame",
but at first the etymological trail is rather underwhelming. "Video" was
borrowed from Latins "videre" which means "to see". Latins "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
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
intriguingthe discovery that they are both connected to "videogame" is
even more so, but the fact that theyre both related to penguin hints at
a story needing to be told, so Ill 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 Provenšal "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 youre 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 referencewhich
arrived in English as "idol and kaleidoscope", among others. Celtics
"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
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 youre in a social gaming situation.
Astound your friends with your wisdom (also a linguistic cousin of
videogame) before you take them down.
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