Forum Archive : History

The name "backgammon"

From:   Marina Smith
Address:   marina@pericles.demon.co.uk
Date:   8 January 1998
Subject:   Re: Origin of the word "Backgammon"?
Forum:   rec.games.backgammon
Google:   34b41c2f.57396@news.demon.co.uk

> Does any one know the entomology of the word Backgammon?

JCDill replied:
> From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) (web1913)
> Backgammon \Back"gam`mon\, n. [Origin unknown; perhaps fr.Dan. bakke
> tray + E. game; or very likely the first part is from E.back, adv.,
> and the game is so called because the men are often set back.] A game
> of chance and skill, played by two persons on a ``board'' marked off
> into twenty-four spaces called ``points''. Each player has fifteen
> pieces, or ``men'', the movements of which from point to point are
> determined by throwing dice. Formerly called tables.

In 'Backgammon the Action Game' by Prince Alexis Obolensky and Ted
James it tells how the game was played in ancient Sumer, 5,000 years
ago, goes on to talk about the Romans and how they played it, and then
it says:

"During the first millenium after Christ, backgammon was played
throughout the Middle East. Whether or not the Romans were responsible
for its popularization or if it just continued to be played after
Sumer crumbled is not known. However, in the Journal of the Asiatic
Society of Bengal, H.G. Raverty, in an article entitled "The invention
of chess and backgammon", writes: Ard-Shir Babakan, son of Babak of
the Sasanian dynasty of Iran-Zamin or the ancient Persian empire,
invented it. The game was also sometimes called  Nard-i-Shir after

I must say, the explanation of going back and getting gammons doesn't
ring true. The 'back' bit relies upon English, and in English we
always called it tables, after the Latin tabula, until fairly recent
times (well, until a few hundred years ago, anyway). The 'gammon' bit
begs the question of why are gammons called that anyway? It seems more
likely that they got called after the game than the other way around
to me. So, why not the good Babakan as the origin? It sounds right. In
language, we often corrupt a strange or foreign word into something
that does at least sound like our own language. For example, take the
English slang term 'loo' (bathroom) which is a corruption of the
French 'gardez l'eau' (beware - water) a cry from the day when
chamberpots were emptied out of upstairs windows onto the street
(yuck, hmm?). Loo was a popular card game of the 18th century, a
sandbank, and a common place name suffix. Now, if the game was revived
in the West as a result of interest in the Middle East, say in the
Crusades, the Persian term could have spread gradually throughout
Europe as an alternative to the more popular Latin name, finally
taking over in English around the 17th century. Any thoughts?

The game Babakan is said to have invented was not quite the same as
backgammon, but close. If anyone is interested, I can post that bit of
the book too. I would love to get hold of the article that was quoted.

By the way, I have also read somewhere, but can't remember the source,
that the word Backgammon comes from the Welsh and means 'little war'.
Hmm - I don't think so. The Welsh are not renowned as being backgammon
players. I think this must be a happy coincidence.

Marina/mas on fibs
Did you find the information in this article useful?          

Do you have any comments you'd like to add?     



Backgammon in China  (Mark Driver, Jan 2001) 
Backgammon variants  (Raccoon, Aug 2003) 
Books on the history of backgammon  (Albert Steg, Aug 1998) 
Changes in backgammon over the years  (Joe Russell, July 2009) 
Doubling in the 17th Century?  (David Levy+, Dec 2003)  [GammOnLine forum]
Murray's "History of Boardgames Other than Chess"  (Dean Jameson, Apr 2002) 
Origin of backgammon  (Greycat Sharpclaw, Oct 1997) 
Recent changes  (Joe Russell+, July 2009) 
The effect of bots on the game  (Daniel Murphy+, May 2005)  [GammOnLine forum]
The name "backgammon"  (Jive Dadson+, Dec 2002) 
The name "backgammon"  (Marina Smith, Jan 1998) 
The name "backgammon"  (Albert Steg, Mar 1995) 

[GammOnLine forum]  From GammOnLine       [Long message]  Long message       [Recommended reading]  Recommended reading       [Recent addition]  Recent addition

  Book Suggestions
Computer Dice
Cube Handling
Cube Handling in Races
Extreme Gammon
Fun and frustration
GNU Backgammon
Luck versus Skill
Magazines & E-zines
Match Archives
Match Equities
Match Play
Match Play at 2-away/2-away
Opening Rolls
Pip Counting
Play Sites
Probability and Statistics
Source Code
Strategy--Bearing Off
Strategy--Checker play


Return to:  Backgammon Galore : Forum Archive Main Page