the names of the games, part 1: board games

Better Half has found himself surrounded by out-laws (not quite in-laws) who like to get together and play games. My out-laws (BH's family) think this is hilarious, because of BH's reputation as a games-hater, which stems from several throwing-over-the-board-in-disgust incidents from when he was a child. When I met him, he was willing to play Connect Four with his godchildren, but only because he could still obliterate them. I count it as great progress that he now actually volunteers to play Yahtzee and Cribbage and will tolerate a few more games. (God, I've been good for him.) But games still remain a source of transatlantic miscommunication in the family since they, as we've seen already, frequently have different names in different places. The ones I'll cover in this series don't require a lot of discussion, hence my putting them all together like this.

Most of you will know that (BrE) draughts is (AmE) checkers. Or checkers is draughts -- I can't figure out whether I think the earlier term should go first or last in that equation, I can see the connotations going either way. You may also know that Americans spell draught as draft, reflecting the fact that the 'gh' is pronounced 'f', but while I have seen the board game sold as Checkers/Draughts in the US, I've never seen the BrE name of the game translated into AmE spelling. (I'm not going to get into the pronunciation of the vowel...suffice it to say that it too is different in different places.) Where do these names come from? It's a tricky question, since the OED, amazingly enough, includes neither draughts nor checkers. (No, what's amazing enough is my poor dictionary search skills in this instance--see the comments.) The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that draughts is related to dragon and goes back to about 1400. Checkers, alluding to the appearance of the board, arose in America in the 18th century. That "OED" (shall I call it OnEtyD?) also notes that "British prefers [the spelling] chequer, but the U.S. form is more authentic." Another case (cf. -ise) of British spelling being influenced by French. So, (AmE) Chinese checkers is known (though not very widely, it seems) in BrE as Chinese chequers. (Chinese draughts seems much less common, and seems mostly to be used by non-native speakers).

BrE Ludo (left, from Wikipedia), from the Latin for 'I play', is the game that Americans call Parcheesi (right, from Robby Findler's software construction course), though as you can see their boards are slightly different. It derives from an Indian game, and the AmE name is based on the Hindi name--which has been spelled in many ways in English, with pachisi sometimes regarded as 'most authenthic'. Parcheesi is the most familiar spelling in the US, as that's how the game was marketed by Selchow & Righter, 'the house that Parcheesi built'.

Once you know about Ludo, it makes more sense that the game that is called Clue in AmE is called Cluedo in BrE. Cluedo came first, as it was invented, A.E. Pratt of Birmingham, in the 1940s (though he had originally called it Murder). Since the pun wouldn't be appreciated in the US, it was marketed there as Clue. The game is the same, except for the names of some of the characters, weapons and rooms. There are a few linguistic differences in the game:

  • Miss Scarlett (UK) v Miss Scarlet (US)
  • Rev Green (UK) v Mr. Green (US)
  • Mrs(.) White has recently been replaced in US by Dr. Orchid
  • According to Wikipedia, the dagger is called the knife in some US editions (it was dagger in mine growing up, so I don't know...)
  • The lead pipe was originally called lead piping in BrE
As far as I know, the names of all the rooms are the same, but it's worth noting that conservatory is often pronounced differently in the two. You can hear the difference here. Boards even within countries seem to vary in whether they consider the conservatory to be a glass-enclosed room full of plants or a music room. The original board just had blank areas label(l)ed by room names, but more recent ones illustrate them. I've seen this one on both Clue and Cluedo boards:

The Hollywood film based on the game, incidentally, was called Clue internationally and used the American character names.

I've got other board games to cover under part 2—children's games. There may be a part 3 on card games, if I can find more to mention. Email me if you have any suggestions.

[This post was updated 23 March 2020 with the details of US/UK Clue(do) differences, replacing a no-longer-working link on the topic.]


  1. The Ludo/Cluedo/Clue story is a helpful one, but I must addd several (im)pertinent remarks.

    One: I cannot see Cluedo without thinking it contains a gratuitous spelling mistake. The e should go missing unless the word is to be pronounced clew-way-dough, somewhat homophonic with suede. Or suedo. Or... have I been mispronouncing Blue Suedo Shoes all this time? (* What's a pseudophone?)

    Two: the pronunciation of BrE words containing gh. Slough, anyone? As it pertains to watercourses the AmE pronunciation tends to be similar to the word describing what St. George did to the dragon. But BrE being what it is, more than one pronunciation is on the books. What about other -gh- words?

    Three: UK products (including Commonwealth countries perhaps) whose names are similar to, but inexplicably distinct from their US counterparts: TK Maxx, anyone? Oil of Ulay?

    Maybe these are linguistic impertinences, but is that not a staple of this column?

  2. Thank you for finally educating me (clueing me in?) on what parcheesi is! I always rather vaguely assumed it was a card game, maybe similar to bridge. Not that I've ever played bridge, but the two seemed to fit together. My hubby, on the other hand, thought it was similar to boulle/petanc.

    Re: card games. I'm guessing that you've already looked at 'snap'. I've had to explain what I mean to so many americans when they've said something similar to me at the same time, and I've said 'Snap!' to their utter bemusement.

    As a matter of interest, is the letter 'u' worth the same number of points in US scrabble, since it's not used as often as in Commonwealth English?

  3. Two: the pronunciation of BrE words containing gh. Slough, anyone? As it pertains to watercourses the AmE pronunciation tends to be similar to the word describing what St. George did to the dragon. But BrE being what it is, more than one pronunciation is on the books. What about other -gh- words?

    Enough, thought, through, thorough, though, cough...

    No wonder foreigners find English tricky.

  4. David: TJ Maxx was named TK Maxx in the UK to avoid confusion with TJ Hughes.

    Oil of Olay, according to Wik, started in South Africa as Oil of Olay and then "As the company began to market the product internationally, it was decided to modify the name of the product in each country so it would sound pleasing and realistic to consumers. This led to the introduction of oil of Ulay (UK), oil of Ulan (Australia) and oil of Olaz (Netherlands)."

    Not sure what the thinking behind the different names for Olay was, but maybe there was something phonological in it?

  5. Snap has indeed been covered here previously. Hit on the 'games' tag at the end of the entry to see other games that have already been covered.

    GY--thanks for being better with the dictionary than me. I searched for 'draughts' both in the on-line dict and within the entry and it came up empty for me. But look what a little reading can do for a person... Thanks.

  6. Even though Americans call it "Parcheesi," its spelling indicates that it was devised by a non-rhotic speaker, probably a Briton.

    (Just as the 80s band "Sade" is not really pronounced the same way a rhotic American would say "Shar-day.")

  7. As an American Scrabble player who also plays internationally, I have been exposed to two different sets of jargon. They don't differ so much, but it has sometimes seemed odd to me that the American versions of the terms are actually the sillier ones.

    For example, using all of the tiles at once for an extra fifty points is a (AmE) bingo/(BrE) bonus. "Bingo" is unfortunately the name of a game which isn't as interesting as Scrabble, though it can be made into a verb more naturally than "bonus".

    A move using two double- or triple-word squares is a (AmE) double-double (triple-triple)/(BrE) 4-timer (9-timer). I have found only one citation from a non-tournament player of "treble-treble".

    The tiles left on a player's rack when the game has ended are (BrE) countback. This is never used in North America, and there is no equivalent term that I am aware of. When I wrote my Scrabble program and needed a name for the variable, I chose gin rummy's "deadwood".

    A game or tournament in the UK is played "to" a dictionary, or "to" a set of rules. In the US I've heard about playing to a standard, but we play "with"/"using" a dictionary/set of rules, or more often we just "play [TWL, Sowpods]".

  8. What do Americans call British Bulldog?

  9. Americans don't generally play British Bulldog. And the British don't seem to play Dodgeball. But these aren't board games.

  10. Bulldog is called Bullrush in New Zealand. It generally ends up being banned in most schools due to it being too rough.

    We tended to play piggy in the middle rather than dodgeball. I think it helped with netball skills.

  11. How interesting - I'd seen "Cluedo" once before in the past - either in the credits of the movie "Clue" or in a review of the movie, and wondered what that was all about.

    Also, I've heard fellow Americans say "snap!" before. Not really common, and I associate it more with black dialects for whatever reason.

  12. P.S. - in your post about "snap," the game you call slapjack was introduced to me by my nephews, who called it "Egyptian Rescuer." They've lived their whole lives in Florida, and had no idea why it was called that.


    Parcheesi or Sorry in the US? See link above. Cheers, Nic

  14. Sorry is the tradename of a pachisi-based game--there are many of these, e.g. Trouble and Aggravation. We considered them to be different games when I was growing up, but they're pretty much the same thing.

    Snap in African-American culture is related to ritual insulting (The Dozens) (here's a blogger on the matter). It's very different from the BrE use of the term, and, as far as I know, unrelated. The Dozens is wordplay consisting of ever-increasing insults, and 'snapping' is dealing out one of those insults--which seems to have led to the use of snap! just to mean 'I got you--you're hereby insulted'. The BrE term is based on the card game (see link above) and means something more like 'Hey, we're the same!' As people commented back at that post, it feels lucky/friendly to 'snap' someone in BrE, not competitive.

  15. 40 odd years ago at Junior School (aged about 10) We used to play a game called ‘Kingy’. One person was the ‘King’ the other had to hit him with a thrown ball. The ‘King’ had to try and dodge the ball, alternately he was allowed to punch the ball away with a closed fist. Whoever managed to hit the ‘king’ with the ball promptly became ‘King’ himself and was then the target.

    Which seems to match up (in concept at least) to some variants of Dodge Ball as described on Wikipedia.

  16. Allie posted a comment that might lead you to another game worth noting -- petanc/petanque/bocce ball -- which I believe are approximately the same thing. I had never heard of petanque until we honeymooned in England. It looked like a fun game. It took us a few years to find it, but we found a nice stainless steel petanque set at Pier One (and that's how it was spelled on the card).

    Also, to answer Allie's Scrabble question, all vowels are worth only one point in American Scrabble. But, along the same line of thinking, maybe the British version of Scrabble contains more U tiles? My (American) version comes with 4.

  17. Definitely in the same family as Dodgeball, but certainly not as widespread. The worst thing about dodgeball is that one typically plays it in gym/PE class. It was school-sanctioned bullying violence. I'm guessing they're probably not forcing it on children quite so much these days...

  18. Andyman and Allie--the Scrabble sets for English are the same around the world. There aren't that many more 'U's in BrE. Besides, both the u-ful and u-less variations of colo(u)r, favo(u)r, vigo(u)r (etc.) are allowed in all pfficial English Scrabble dictionaries.

  19. Even far into high school, we used to play a game called 'knuckles'. The idea was to hit your opponents knuckles with yours, and the rules were pretty simple:

    You and your opponent make a fist and press them up against each other, knuckles together.
    If you swing and miss, it's your opponent's turn.
    If you 'dummy' (false start, intended to result in a flinch) three times without your opponent flinching, then it's your opponent's turn.
    If your opponent flinches three times after you dummy, you get a free swing.

    Needless to say, this game usually resulted in the letting of blood. But it was a great was for juveniles to pass the time.

  20. jangari - we called it "bloody knuckles", and you only got one flinch, not three, before a free hit.

  21. P.S. - in your post about "snap," the game you call slapjack was introduced to me by my nephews, who called it "Egyptian Rescuer." They've lived their whole lives in Florida, and had no idea why it was called that.

    I learned it in college (in Pittsburgh PA) and we called it "Egyptian Rat-Screw". Which is probably phonological confusion from "Rescue", but that's all I know.

    (At least, assuming this is the game where you occasionally whack other players' knuckles and there are special rules for doing things simultaneously.)

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  23. Evidentally you never wrote the one on card games, but John McLeod's pages on "national and regional games" are a good source for that sort of thing. Some of the information on card games in Australia I submitted myself.

    [Please delete previous comment; I hit "submit" instead of "preview" by mistake.]

  24. Me and my brother always loved the film Clue as kids and watched it over and over many times. But we always used to refer to the film as "Cluedo" until fairly recently. In fact, I think we assumed it was called Cluedo at first. We obviously knew that it was different to the British game because the Reverend Green was changed to Mr Green.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)