English Word Series: Play

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- one could take jest at another’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)’.  This meaning can be witnessed in the use of weaponry, ‘swordplay’, performing sports, ‘play billiards’, using instruments, ‘played romantic ballads’, and other games such as chess where one ‘plays a piece’, or cards where one ‘plays a hand’.  

From the late Middle English definition of ‘play’, a series of actions could be described by the word- one could stake or wager in a game from the late 17th century, operate artillery fire from the late 18th century, emit a jet of water from the middle of the 19th century, ‘played the orange-trees’, masturbate from the early 20th century, ‘play with oneself’, as well as use a radio, ‘play the radio’, and then describe the process of using a disc or tape from the middle of the 20th century, ‘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.