The study of word origins is known as etymology, a branch of linguistics that is somewhat of an inexact science. This is because in many cases the true origin of words can be lost in translation, or lack the necessary historical context required to arrive at certainty as to their root meaning. But in spite of this, etymology can be frequently enlightening and fascinating, and uncovers hidden truths and elements of the story of a word and the thing it’s named for. In this article we’re going to be looking at the origins of the names of some of the world’s most popular and long lived games. It’s a survey that will take us on travels from the mountains of Alaska to the tropical plains of India, encompassing several thousand years of trade, cultural interchange and global history along the way.
Blackjack is among the most popular card games in the world and a mainstay at brick-and-mortar casinos everywhere. While it has a long history dating back to the 19th century, a new generation of on-demand and tech savvy players are increasingly making use of the online variants offered by reputable platforms to familiarize themselves with this enduring classic. And many of those may rightly wonder: from where does it get its peculiar name? Blackjack is a member of a large family of banking games variously named after the number 21, the value for a winning hand. Vingt-Un, Ventiuno, and even Pontoon (which is an English corruption of the original French) are all examples of this.
Blackjack itself gets its name from its time spent as a favorite saloon title during the Klondike gold rush, where the game slowly began to evolve into the format we recognize as blackjack today. In gaming houses of the early 20th century, it became popular to run the promotion of a bonus payout for winning hands that featured the Ace of Spades alongside one of the “black” suited jacks, the Jack of Spades or Clubs. The name eventually caught on and displaced Vingt-Un as the dominant term used for the game in North America.
Chess has undergone multiple stages of translation on its journey towards mediaeval Europe, stopping over in North Africa and Persia as it made its way from the 6th century Gupta Empire in India. One modern explanation for the name is that the word is an anagram made from the names of its characteristic pieces: Chariot for Rooks, Horse for Knights, Elephants for Bishops and Soldiers for Pawns. While this is a tidy explanation, and one well suited to the rigorously logical minds of chess fans, this is almost certainly untrue. The real picture is more vague. When the Indian game, known as Chaturanga, made its way north to the Persian Sassanid Empire it took on the name Shah, a word that is still used in the region today to denote a king or leader. As the game made its way across numerous linguistic boundaries and physical borders, this word had become “chess”.
MahJong has its origins in the Zhou Dynasty of China, as early as at least the time of Confucius (5th Century BC), who is often credited with being its creator. The earliest recorded name for the game we now know of as MahJong was Máquè, which means “Sparrow”. One apocryphal story suggests that this derives from Confucius’ fondness for the birds. The earliest versions of the game were played on cards, with the characteristic tiles only coming in around 1100AD. It is for this reason that the more modern explanation for the game’s name, that the sound of the tiles, when shuffled, sound like the chattering of sparrows, is unlikely to be the ultimate root of the name. Still, this is a perfect example of how meanings can displace one another over time, with this explanation now broadly accepted among players aware of the meaning of the game’s name.