A Brief History of Word Games

Last update: 3/31/2023

History of word games

Humans are so eager to engage in “play” that it is likely the first humans to develop speech were also the first to make up games with that speech. Think of how often children find delight in making up rhymes or creating games from words that start with the same letter or end with the same letter…that alone tells us that word games of one form or another have probably been around since language itself emerged.

What, though, of more formal and organized word games? If we look at the word “game” itself, we see it emerge in Old English around the year 1200 CE. Meaning anything from joy and fun to glee and amusement, it is thought to have originally been “gamen” and lost the -en sound accidentally when speakers mistook it as a suffix. As one etymological website says, game “is first attested c. 1200 (of athletic contests, chess, backgammon). Especially ‘the sport of hunting, fishing, hawking, or fowling’… thus ‘wild animals caught for sport'”…also become “game”.

By the middle of the 1500s, though, it seems that people were already using it to describe a type of “play” or “sport” and people would play at games. Then, it became “gambling” and soon moved into the concept of games we think of today. Of course, when we think of word games, we might automatically think of crossword puzzles, and perhaps that is one of the earliest, formal types of word games.

Puzzle is a word that appeared around the 1590s and was first used to mean a “perplexing question”. However, by the 1800s, it became a “toy contrived to test one’s ingenuity”.

So, we can see how word games may have easily evolved, becoming challenges that tested someone’s language skills or knowledge. Because games are a form of entertainment, they probably emerged in this manner and then moved on to competitions and educational outlets later.

The word games we play today are probably not that far from their origins, and most experts agree that they are found in only a few formats limited to letter arrangement, letter replacement, or “fill in the blanks” word finder games. Think of anagrams, hangman, and word scramble games. Some combine elements of chance, while others might emphasize a certain knowledge or skill. Crosswords are one such example.

We know that crosswords became popular in the 1800s but only emerged in a recognizable form in the U.S. around 1913. They require general knowledge and good vocabulary and are not limited to chance. Scrabble, on the other hand, emerged as a game of both chance and skill, so a little Scrabble help can go a long way toward improving your score.

As long as we could read, write, and speak, we have played with words, and today there are amazing opportunities to continue enjoying such activities – including multiplayer word games through apps like Words with Friends or traditional and beloved board games like Scrabble.