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I'm trying to understand the origins of the phrase "I'm game".

I understand how the phrase is used in everyday English, but what are the origins of this phrase? How did it come to imply a willingness to an action? Can someone please point me to a source that explains the origins of this phrase?

  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/6426/14666 What does “I'm game” mean and what's its correct usage? – Kris Jan 11 '15 at 12:40
  • See also: phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/4/messages/755.html – Kris Jan 11 '15 at 12:41
  • "Well, I'm game for it,' I said." ?1833 Extracts from Longman's Magazine GoogleBooks books.google.com/… – Kris Jan 11 '15 at 13:13
  • Kris's second reference above says this: Game as an adjective is a word going back to the 1600s. It is from a very Old English word "gamen" which means joy or pleasure. No "authority" mentioned, however. – Hot Licks Jan 11 '15 at 13:41
  • Thanks kris! That really answers the question I had. If you write it up as an answer, I'll accept it – darnir Jan 11 '15 at 15:14
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The Oxford dictionary defines Game as

Eager and willing to do something new or challenging ...

Origin

Old English gamen 'amusement, fun', gamenian 'play, amuse oneself', of Germanic origin.

(Posted as wiki, since it is really derived from Kris' comments).

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Likely a branch from 'Game On'
So one of the translations for on, as it is used, could be that which specifies to an operating state or ready state. Now truncate the phrase and equate I => 'Game On' you have something to the effect of "I'm ready." Or "I'm ready to play" to make light of the situation. There's also a phrase "I'm Down" which has a similar use and meaning which it probably borrowed its structure from.

That's the best way to describe it and probably the closest thing you'll find to an etymology. I would look at Urban Dictionary for future slang questions and check out the related phrases.

Not exactly structural or scientific but as a native speaker that seems to be the most plausible origin.

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According to etymonline, "game" was used as an adjective as early as 1725. The example given is "game cock" for a fighting bird (i.e. cockfighting). This is a reference to the game of cockfighting itself, i.e. "game" as a noun, a use which is even older and has various Germanic roots.

The word might have evolved something like this:

  1. First you have the game of cockfighting.
  2. You have cocks specifically for this game, called game cocks, where a game cock is braver and more willing to fight than common farm fowl.
  3. The word "game" is now also an adjective to describe these cocks ("my cock's gamer than your cock...") and so you could conceivably have a game person, who similarly has a braver spirit than the average person and is more willing to face danger or risk.
  4. As a result, you have people claiming to have such fighting spirit by saying "I'm game".
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From OED 2E :

game, a.1

-a. Having the spirit of a game-cock; full of pluck, showing ‘fight’; plucky, spirited. (Said of animals, and of persons, their actions and attributes.)

-b. Having the spirit or will for or to do (something adventurous).

1856 Reade Never too late I. xxi. 216, I am game to try.

We seem to come to the adverbial form through the specific senses of game qua hunt, to game as the hunted animal or object of pursuit, and finally to an adverb 'characteristic of a spirited animal quarry' on to literal and the current broad/figurative 'willing to pursue an objective'.

game, n.

-9. Sport derived from the chase Obs.

-10.a The object of the chase; the animal or animals hunted.
-10.b transf. and fig. An object of pursuit; also, an object in view.

-11.a Wild animals or birds such as are pursued, caught or killed in the chase.
-13. cock of the game
-14. The characteristics of a game-fowl; spirit for fighting, pluck, endurance.

-15. Short for game-fowl.

The association with hunting appears circa 1300; the narrowing to bird-related usage beginning in the 16th century and used as an abbreviation of game-fowl in the late 1700s. The entry for the adverb states it is derived from the noun sense 15 above, though this seems to be merely the point at which -fowl began to be dropped while still retaining the previous meanings.

Note that this progression of game qua hunt does not necessarily encompass all modern figurative uses: other senses derived from game strategy, victory, competitive attitude, and games as conceptual metaphor for life events all developed early and without necessarily touching on the hunting/bird characteristics thread.

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Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) dates the adjective game in the sense of "having or showing a resolute unyielding spirit" to 1610. That being the case, it's a bit surprising that a Google Books search doesn't turn up any relevant seventeenth- or eighteenth-century matches for "I am game," "you are game," we are game," "they are game." he is game," or "she is game." Accurate though MW's definition and dating may be for the adjective game, the phrase "I am game" (or "he is game," etc.) may have arisen as late as the early nineteenth century.

Fans of Dickens's Dombey and Son (1846–1848) may recall a character whose role in the book is to teach Mr. Toots (an amiable but rather gullible young gentleman) various manly arts—a character identified only as "the Game Chicken." As you may know, Dickens named this character after a champion pugilist of the early nineteenth century, one Henry Pearce (aka "Hen" Pearce, aka the Game Chicken). Pearce died in 1809 just before the age of 33, but he was England's bare knuckles prizefighting champion between 1804 and 1807.

I was delighted to learn in John Farmer & William Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1893) that some word historians credit the Game Chicken with vitalizing the term game:

Game, ... Adj. (old).—1. Plucky ; enduring ; full of spirit and BOTTOM (q.v.). (Cock-pit and pugilists'. The word may be said to have passed into the language with the renown of Harry Pearce, surnamed the GAME CHICKEN.]

Pearce was certainly was a very famous figure in his day (and afterward). Though the Wikipedia article on Pearce claims that he earned the sobriquet "the Game Chicken" by referring to himself as "Hen," his obituary in the June 1809 issue of The Athenæum indicates that his tenacity was responsible for the Game part of the name:

Pearce first entered the lists with Bourke, whom Belcher had twice beaten, and they fought in a room in St. Martin's-lane by candle-light. The conflict was short and desperate, and in a quarter of an hour the Bristol hero was declared the victor. The bottom he evinced on this occasion procured him the name of Game Chicken ; upon which he crowed defiance of all the game cocks in the kingdom, Belcher excepted (it being his intention not to pit himself against any of the Bristol breed.)

The crucial word in this excerpt is bottom, which Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Eighth edition (1984) defines as "Stamina, grit," citing Captain Godfrey, The Science of Defence (1747) to this effect:

Bottom, that is, wind and spirit, or heart, or wherever you can fix the residence of courage...

Farmer & Henley sites Captain Godfrey as saying elsewhere in the same book,

Smallwood [a boxer] is thorough game, with judgment equal to any, and superior to most.

In any event, the earliest instances of I am/he is/they are/... game that a Google Books search finds are from the 1800s. From Byron, "Don Juan," Canto VII (July 15, 1823):

The second object was to profit by

The moment of the general consternation

To attack the Turks' flotilla, which lay nigh

Extremely tranquil, anchor'd at its station:

But a third motive was as probably

To frighten them into capitulation ;

A fantasy which sometimes seizes warriors,

Unless they are game as bull-dogs and fox-terriers.

From American Turf Register (December 1832):

As for Black Maria, she is literally "too fast for the speedy, and too strong for the stout." She ran the twentieth mile with a freshness and vigour that surprised every body, and the spectators at last actually conceded that she is "game!" That she can conquer either Relief or Trifle, at two heats, in a match, there can be no manner of doubt; and that she is a "hard one to beat" in any race, even by a field, all sportsmen must now believe.

From Curio, "The Sanguine Man," in The Metropolitan, volume 36 (1843):

The lessons of life lighten, but not enlighten him. "The uses of adversity" to him are rather bracing than "sweet," they give him nerve without philosophy, plasticity without power, aspirations in place of honour, multifold "kicks" and very few "halfpence;" and hapless as his case must be with the genius he defies, he is game and dilemma-proof to the last, and comes off "more than a conqueror," though a very considerable loser, from every conflict in which he shrinks not from engaging.

From Albert Smith, "The Scattergood Family," in Bentley's Miscellaney (1844):

"If I can get out of this, I'm game," returned Bolt.

"If you are game, they'll bring you down — safe," answered the other, with a chuckle.

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In a play from 1815 (Fashionable Foibles), Joseph Hutton uses it in what appears to be the modern meaning, as part of what seems to be slangy rhyming: " Damme, cries Tom, insult me, sir, your name, sir, Dick Bluster, damme, sir, you'll find I 'm game, sir. " Could it be he originated it, based on its rhyme with "name"?

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More likely it is from the phrase "To die game" , which is to maintain a bold, unyielding spirit to the last; to die fighting.

So you are saying you are ready to go out and die game.

  • It will not be from there. However the word game is the same in both cases. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 4 '15 at 11:11

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