Etymology of play
In understanding the play of children and adults, we should first take note of the cultural origins and meanings of various words given to play. It is not the intention, nor indeed is it practical, to detail every root of every word in every culture here. However, there follows a brief review of the chapter The play-concept as expressed in language, to be found in Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture (Huizinga, 1950) from which useful modern suppositions can be drawn.
Huizinga details four verbal roots for the play-concept in Sanskrit, two of which are noted here, namely: krīdati, being used to describe the general play of animals, children and adults, the movement of wind and waves and, by extension, the field of dance and drama; līlā, which ‘expresses all the light, aerial, frivolous, effortless and insignificant sides of playing’ (p. 32). He goes on to explain that līlā is akin to the word like in English, describing ‘the appearance of things’ and, in this respect, gājendralīla ‘means a man representing an elephant or playing the elephant’. Sturrock and Else (1998) describe līlā as ‘play as divine’ (p.5).
As a general encompassing description, the Sanskrit origins of its words for play denote movement.
Chinese also has several words to describe various play and, similarly, no overall single word. Huizinga details one of these words as being wan and that it can generally be deemed to mean ‘handling something with playful attention or to be lightly engrossed’ (p.32).
Another of these Chinese words for play describes activities to do with contests (cheng), which is comparable in definition to the Greek word agon.
Huizinga explains that ancient Greek culture made the distinction between play and the contest (agon). The Greeks did not consider the contest to be play, which Huizinga refutes. He states that, in many languages, the invention of a single word to describe the embodiment of all play is a relatively recent invention. ‘Sacred and profane contests had taken such an enormous place in Greek social life and gained so momentous a value that people were no longer aware of their play-character.’ (p.31).
Japanese has the word asobi meaning ‘play in general, recreation, relaxation, idling . . . [also] representation, imitation.’
Semitic languages such as Arabic have the root la’ab, la’iba, meaning ‘laughing and mocking’.
In contrast, Latin ‘has one word to cover the whole field of play: ludus.’
Old Gothic had laikan (again, movement or leaping), which served the High German leich (‘lively rhythmical movement’), Anglo-Saxon lâcan (‘to swing, to wave about’) and lâc, similar to the Old Norse leikr, leika (‘all kinds of play’). The younger Scandinavian has lege, leka.
Following this, there are similarities between the Old English Anglo-Saxon words lâc and plega. The current word play is derived from plega. Huizinga draws comparisons between the Old English and Old Saxon plegan and the Old High German pflegan, which correlates to the modern German word pflegen (meaning ‘to care’). The German pflegen is ‘used in connection with the performance of a sacred act, the giving of advice, the administration of justice’. In other words, the ceremonial and the inherent care in its enactment.
Huizinga draws parallels between the words play and pflegen and states that, although they’re derived from ‘roots alike in sound but different in origin’ (p.39) they are effectively ‘semantically identical’ (p.40). Play as ceremony?
He goes on to describe, in the context of the ceremonial, the Dutch word for marriage, huwelijk, from the Middle Low Dutch huweleec or huweleic (wedding-play). The comparison of the Germanic root leik with the Scandinavian can clearly be seen.
He further goes on to describe Anglo-Saxon words, such as beadu-lac (battle-play) and asc-plega (spear-play), to highlight poetic metaphors in Anglo-Saxon poetry. The purpose is to explain that, in this cultural context, combat, contest, battle were seen as ‘the single fundamental idea of a struggle with fate limited by certain rules . . . play is battle and battle is play.’ (p.41).
In analysis of one of the descriptive words for play that Huizinga draws attention to, I'm led to consideration of the context of modern adult life. Huizinga states that contest and play cannot be separated. ‘Contest means play . . . there is no sufficient reason to deny any contest whatsoever the character of play’ (p.76). Whilst his argument is compelling, I also find validity in the contrary notion.
That is to say, with regards to the idea that the linguistic division of contest and play led to people no longer being aware of the nature of play itself, could it be argued that an analogous phenomenon has happened in contemporary Western society? i.e. for actual ancient Greek contest, read: modern adult life’s requirements for us to rise to the challenges of earning a living, getting by, gaining and maintaining status and knowledge, earning respect, raising children, corporate- financial- and biological success, amongst many others. Could it be that we are no longer aware of our play? The contest of life is the constant challenge; play is something children are perceived to do.
However, similarly, following Huizinga’s contention that contest and play are, in fact, inseparable, just as in Anglo-Saxon times (play is battle and battle is play), the modern Western adult finds him or herself battling not with swords in mortal combat but in an environment in which they are playing the game in order to get by, to achieve, essentially to win.
The waters are muddied. Is modern Western adult life ‘contest or play’ or ‘contest is play’?
Take the example of a modern day football match as seen on television. Suppose it to be an international match in which the home country’s team must win in order to secure qualification to the latter stages of a tournament. Listen to the rhetoric of the commentators and interviewed footballers who describe the need for big hearts, courage, togetherness, character, etc. Is this contest or play (in the Greek agon model) or is this contest-play (as in the Anglo-Saxon model of play is battle . . .)?
In summary of this review, play and the words given for play in various cultures have been used to describe, amongst other aspects: movement; insignificance, comparison and the divine; playful attention; contest; recreation; laughing and mocking; play as a whole; rhythmic movement; swinging and waving about; ceremony and care, and battle.
Huizinga, J. (1950), Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press (1955 reprint).
Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing - the Colorado paper. IPA/USA: Triennial National Conference.
Joel D. R. Seath MIfL