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shameless pleading

Roshambo

Take your chances.

Dear Word Detective: What is the derivation of the name “RoShamBo” for the rock-paper-scissors game? — Frances.

Really? No kidding. Live and learn. I had honestly never heard it called that. Then again, rock-paper-scissors is one of those games I’m not very good at. I tend to get stuck on “rock” and lose right away. Come to think of it, I’m really not very good at any game that involves hand-waving and the like. I’m the only person I know who’s actually been injured in a game of patty-cake.

According to Wikipedia (motto: “We Am Frequently Correct”), rock-paper-scissors (which I will henceforth call “RPS” to save my sanity) dates back to the Han Dynasty in China (206 B.C.) and is now played everywhere on earth. For the benefit of all you non-earthlings, the Oxford English Dictionary definition is fairly succinct: “A game (used especially to settle petty disputes or as a tiebreaker) in which, at an agreed signal, each participant makes a gesture with one hand representing either a rock, paper, or a pair of scissors, the winner being determined according to an established scheme,” which is usually “rock blunts (beats) scissors, scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock.” There is almost always a three-syllable counting phrase (or just “one, two, three”) chanted during the game, which consists of two warm-up feints and then a third swing of the arm when your choice of R, P or S is displayed. I’m sure there are at least three million YouTube videos demonstrating how it’s done.

There is, interestingly, a World RPS Society, whose website (www.worldrps.com) offers all sorts of tips on strategy, variants, and the history of the game. The World RPS Society was founded in London in 1842 as the Paper Scissors Stone Club shortly after a law was passed in England declaring an RPS match “between two gentleman acting in good faith” to be a legally binding contract.
In your question you refer to “RoShamBo,” capitalized in such a way as to imply that it’s a sort of acronym for something, but apparently it isn’t, and it’s usually just written “roshambo.” There are two leading theories about the origin of the word.

The simpler of the two theories ties “roshambo” to the Japanese name for the game, “janken,” and to the three-syllable phrase chanted during the game, “Jan-ken-pon” or “Jan-ken-poh.” The Chinese regional dialect version of the name, “jiang jun bo,” may also figure in this theory. If one of these two was the source of “roshambo,” it was probably via a misunderstanding and later modification of the term by English-speakers who didn’t speak either Japanese or Chinese. The phonological change needed to get from the Japanese or Chinese terms to “roshambo” would not necessarily be too long a stretch in such a case. After all, we managed to turn the Mexican Spanish “vaquero” (cowboy) into “buckaroo.”

The other theory about “roshambo” suggests an origin a bit closer to home for those of us in the US. “Roshambo,” goes this theory, is a phonetic form of the French “Rochambeau,” specifically as found in the name of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau (1725–1807). Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur was a general in the French army, best remembered for commanding a force sent to help George Washington’s troops during the American Revolution. According to this theory, RPS was associated with Jean-Baptiste in some fashion, and he (or his soldiers) may have introduced the game to the American colonists, who may have tacked his name onto it in tribute. Or something like that. For a theory, this one is very hazy, but not impossible.

Intriguingly, the first known use of “roshambo” in print was actually in the form “Ro-cham-beau,” which would seem to lend credence to the Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur theory. Unfortunately, that first known use was in 1936, more than a century after Jean-Baptiste’s death, which raises the question of why it took so long for the gratitude of the colonists to manifest itself.

Fortunately, I have my own theory. It’s not much of a theory, and I have absolutely no evidence for it, so caveat lector. My theory is that “roshambo” has nothing to do with anything Jean-Baptiste Yadda Yadda, Comte de Rochambeau did or did not do regarding RPS. I think it came about because American History courses taught to schoolchildren in the 19th and early 20th centuries almost certainly required them to learn about Jean-Baptiste and to memorize his name. When, during recess, the children then used RPS to settle a dispute, the ornate three-syllable name “Ro-cham-beau” would have been on their little minds and thus a natural for a counting chant during the game. They could as easily have chanted “Wash-ing-ton,” of course, but “Ro-cham-beau” actually sounds like an exotic magic incantation. And “roshambo” is a lot easier to say than “rock-paper-scissors.”

3 comments to Roshambo

  • Alex Brant-Zawadzki

    Seems logical to me that Rochambeau could take that long to be used enough to designate an arbitrary “first known use”.

    You yourself said you hadn’t heard RPS referred to as Ro Sham Bo, and information is a bit more readily available these days.

    I’ll bet there were also dozens of colloquialisms/idioms that were deemed too indecent or povertous to print.

  • Kayla

    Seems roshambo is primarily used in the US part of the English-speaking world. I’d never heard RPS referred to as anything but Rock Paper Scissors until very recently (an episode of Castle on DVD & in the game World of Warcraft in the past few weeks). I’ve been trying to pin down the origin of the word to no avail. The sainted Wikipedia suggests that RPS was not widely known in the USA in around 1932 so I doubt the Civil War ref is anything but an attempt to retrofit the word & give it some plausibility rather than admit they don’t know.

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