Let the games begin! No, the quadrennial contest we call the US presidential election has long been underway. That other event occurring every four years, the summer Olympic Games, officially kicks off tonight in Rio de Janeiro.
As the games begin, where does “game” begin?
English has long been playing games. The word is found in several Old English texts, where it takes the form gamen and variously refers to “amusement,” “pleasure,” “enjoyment,” “sport,” and yes, even “lovemaking.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Sir Philip Sidney mentioned Olympian games in the 1580s. But over a decade later, a translation of the French Ieux Olympiques yielded “th’ Olympick games,” which has since prevailed. Earlier, Latin had Olympicum certāmen, and Greek, the language of those original contests in 776 BC, had Ὀλυμπικός ἀγών (Olympikos agon). Latin’s certāmen and Greek’s ἀγών both carry a sense of “struggle” or “contest.”
Over time, the Old English gamen shed its final -en, as it was likely confused as a suffix. Game is clearly Germanic in origin, with cognates in Old High German, Old Icelandic, Old Danish, and other old tongues. All these games share a sense of “something that causes delight and joy.”
But the deeper roots of game are, appropriately enough, contested. One theory is that game is related to the German gumpen, “to jump” or “hop,” whose ultimate source may denote some kind of vigorous, irregular movement (OED). The German gumpen might be the source of English’s own jump – another everyday word, first documented only in the 1500s, whose origin is also disputed.
Another theory looks to an extinct East Germanic language, Gothic, which had gaman. This gaman meant “partner” or “fellowship.” Some explain gaman as a compound: ga–, a prefix indicating collective nouns, plus man, “man,” rendering gaman as “together people.”
While this etymology may not win a gold medal, it certainly captures the spirit of the Olympics. The games bring world-class athletes together and promote worldwide unity –people, together, a welcome event in this otherwise overly-eventful summer.