Origin of the Word Play: The Copy Team Etymology Series

The origin of the word ‘play’ is unknown- all we do know is that English adopted the word ‘pleien’ meaning to ‘dance, leap for joy, and rejoice’ from Dutch in the later Middle Ages (c. 14th century). This was adopted into English as ‘pleg(i)an’, ‘to exercise, or frolic’.

The original Dutch connotation of ‘play’ has been mostly untouched by time. From Old English one could say that a living being ‘played’ if they moved about in a ‘lively, irregular, or capricious motion’. To ‘play’ also adopted the meaning to amuse or divert, ‘and young and old com forth to play on a sunshine Holyday’ (c. 1638). A ‘playmate’ was used to describe children’s friends from 1642 (its sexual connotation being adopted in 1954), and ‘playground’ could be used from 1780.

‘Play’ also had more mocking sub-tones- for example, making a joke at someone’s expense by ‘playing them’ from Old English, which by the middle of the 18th century also included setting people in opposition for one’s own advantage, ‘the wise child handles father and mother by playing one against the other’.

The verb to ‘play’ was also adopted into the English language to mean ‘exercise’- by late Middle English this was defined as meaning to, ‘carry out or practise (an action), or perform or execute (a movement)’. For example:

  • Weaponry, ‘swordplay’
  • Sports, ‘play billiards’
  • Instrumentsand music, ‘played romantic ballads’
  • Games, chess where one ‘plays a piece’, or cards where one ‘plays a hand’.

More recent versions of the verb to ‘play’ adopted in the 20th century include masturbation, ‘to play with oneself’, as well as the use of technology, ‘play the radio’, or ‘play a record’.

One of the oldest meanings of play was its noun, ‘a mimic representation of an action or story as a spectacle on the stage’ which is attested from c. 1325. Other nouns included ‘player’ from 1382 which was adopted in a general sense to mean, ‘a person who plays or who plays something’. The word ‘player’, however, was adopted as the preferred appellation for most pimps from 1974.

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Author: Ed

Ed is an academic editor and founding member of the Copy Team. She has a PhD from UCL in comparative education, worked as an assistant editor at an academic journal (IJNE), and has written countless essays, academic papers and textbooks.