I fought the dog and the dog won.
Dear Word Detective: Growing up, my siblings and I were often admonished to “stop that rough housing!” after the sugar buzz kicked in and the fists and feet had started to fly. Can you shine any light on the origin of “rough house” and how it came to characterize physical acting out? I have a suspicion its origin is probably more sinister than its current usage. We have a new kitten, and I’ve caught myself telling the older cats to “Stop that rough housing!” when they get too aggressive with the new recruit. No, I don’t have any children. Why do you ask? — Chris, Kansas City.
“New kitten” (singular) and “older cats” (indeterminate plural), eh? You have children, bucko. They’re just short, hairy children with very limited vocabularies. But you get points at this end for not using the intensely creepy term “fur babies,” which is routinely deployed without a smidgen of either irony or sarcasm in the crazy-cat-lover hangouts of the internet. And I say that as somebody who carries emergency cans of cat food in the car for strays we encounter in parking lots.
Your suspicion about the dubious origin of “roughhousing,” meaning boisterous and usually highly physical play, is correct. As a verb, “to roughhouse” (which is usually spelled as one word) first appeared in print in the late 19th century and is considered a US coinage. The initial meaning of “to roughhouse” back then was “to mistreat violently; to fight” (“Private James Tinan … in company with some companions yesterday ‘roughhoused’ a peddler and distributed his wares among the crowd,” NY Times, 1898), as well as “to create a disturbance or brawl.”
Within a few years, however, “to roughhouse” had acquired the milder meaning of “to engage in boisterous behavior and horseplay” (“Police spokesmen said the boys were ‘rough-housing’ on the grass,” 1971) or simply “to play energetically” (“The puppy, taking her laughter as a signal to play, romped all over her, and for a while they roughhoused together,” 1995). “Roughhousing” today may involve wrestling over a ball, for instance, but the days when the term was tantamount to “mugging” are, thankfully, long gone.
When “roughhouse” appeared as a noun in the US in the late 19th century, it followed the same arc as the verb from “serious fight” to “lighthearted horseplay.” The word appears to have originated, oddly enough, as a British term that never made it to the US. A “rough house” in 19th century Britain was an inn, pub or private home known as a “rough” place where brawls regularly broke out (“The defendant had been drinking at the new Inn for three weeks … Mr. Oglethorpe stated that it was a rough house … The prisoner had been convicted frequently for assaults on the police,” 1874). So “to roughhouse” was originally to behave as if you were a habitué of a seedy and violent dive.
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve used the term “horseplay” several times in my account, so I guess I’d better explain that word as well. We’ve used “horseplay” since the 18th century to mean friendly, boisterous play, perhaps disruptive and even unintentionally destructive (“No awkward overturns of glasses, plates, and salt-cellars; no horse-play,” 1749), but never malevolent. The word compares such lively play to the antics of colts in a pasture, running and chasing each other. Interestingly, however, when “horseplay” (as “horse-play”) first appeared in the 17th century, it meant literally a theatrical play, in a theater, that involved at least one actual horse on the stage.