Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Play, sport & compete

Play, sport & compete

This week, how about a look at Olympic-inspired words?

Sport came into English in the 1500s meaning both a pleasant pastime & a game involving physical exercise. In the 1660s, Shakespeare crowned war-making the sport of kings. By the 1880s the noun, sport, came to mean good fellow in American English, while down under, the word sport grew to become a way to address a man (1935). Though this next bit is nearly unrelated, I’m forced to include it: In 1972, in a riff titled “Birth Control,” George Carlin imagined a time when birth control would be available to everyone, & offered the following phone call as one that would never again be made or received:

“Hello Dave? This is Jane…You met me at a party six to eight weeks ago and you said I was a real good sport…”

But I digress.

Play comes from the Old English plegian, to exercise, frolic, or perform music. Its Middle Dutch ancestor, plegan, meant to rejoice or be glad.  Some play-based idioms include:

mid-1500s to play fair
1861 to play for keeps
1886 to play the ___card
1896 to play with oneself
1902 to play favorites
1909 to play up
1911 to play it safe
1927 play-by-play
1930 to play down
1936 to play the field

Also, in 1959 Play-Dough was born.

The word compete came to English in the early 1600s. Centuries beforehand, it started as the Latin word competere, where it initially meant to come together, to agree, or to be qualified. In Late Latin competere came to mean to strive in common. On its way through French to English its meaning shifted to mean to be in rivalry with.

Good followers, I’m hoping you’ll have something to say about play, sport, or competition. How about that initial meaning of competere, eh? Or a thought about universal availability of birth control? Or maybe you have a fond (yet printable) Carlin-inspired memory…

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, Mad Music, & the OED.


  1. And also in Italian, the language of my ancestors, competere means to compete.

  2. Hey Sil,
    Great to find you here at Wordmonger. May all your competeres be friendly ones.

  3. Interesting that compete means to come together, since these days competing often drives people apart. I wonder if it's simply the human condition that when we come together we must compete.

    Love the George Carlin quote!

  4. Did play the field mean the same thing in 1936 as it means now? I would have thought that to be a more recent term. Interesting, as usual!

    1. Christine,
      Playing the field in 1936 had to do with gamblers betting on varied horses -- the meaning has morphed a bit since then, eh? And Anne, I also am very intrigued by that idea of coming together being the meaning of compete. Fascinating stuff, this wacky language.