The OED and other sources suggest that playoff is a construction from the late 19th century, while the following source suggests that it was originally used by Shakespeare in Henry IV.

What does that have to do with the word playoff, then? and most importantly Shakespeare? Well, the word playoff comes from Shakespeare himself, and, even more relevant to our league—it was used colloquially in terms of drinking. The expression to play it off or to play off, used in Henry IV, meant “to finish what you started,” specifically to drain or finish an alcoholic drink.

and the following extract from Word Detective appears to support such usage:

This “play-off” invoked a very old sense of “off” meaning “exhaust or finish completely” (as in our modern “finish off”). It wasn’t until 1932 that “play-off” came to mean (first in the US, of course) “a series of games, matches, or contests played to decide a championship, competition, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The points here are the “old sense of off meaning finished” and this long periond of time (from Shakespeare’s till the 19th century) during which the above usage apparently disappeared to reemerge later in expressions like play-off.


Was “playoff” really coined by Shakespeare with the meaning of “finish something”?

Are there other usage instances or phrasal verbs of “off” meaning finished before play-off reappeared in the 19 century?


2 Answers 2


Shakespeare doesn't get credit for coining "play off" because his quasi-use of the term doesn't appear to have influenced the sense as it is used today.

The OED does address this exact quotation in defining a compound definition of "play off."

1. trans. colloq. To drain or finish (a drink, esp. an alcoholic one). Obsolete.

Example citations:

1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 ii. v. 16 When you breath in your watering they cry hem, and bid you play it off .

1607 T. Dekker & G. Wilkins Iests to make you Merie sig. H3v He requested them to play off the sacke and begon.

1645 H. Bold Adventure in Poems (1664) 136 Play off your Canns (you Rogues) your Case I'le warrant, If Fidle's good.

This might have been an existing slang sense of "play off" at the time, or it might have been an original Shakespeare coinage picked up by other period writers. But the large gap in usage between this sense "to finish off" and the sense not attested until centuries later makes it unlikely that those who used "play-off" to mean a series of games or competitions were necessarily aware or focused on the earlier usage.

Lexicographers are interested in direct connections, and in the case of the modern term "play-off" as a noun, the origin appears to be "play off" as a verb.

1901 Munsey's Mag. Jan. 570/1 We're going to play off for the Wolcott cup.

And the earlier sense meaning specifically to break a tie:

10. Sport. a. trans. To decide the result of (a tied match) by further play.

First referred to in golf:

1870 C. MacArthur Golfer's Ann. 118 On the tie being played off, Sir Robert and Mr. Anderson again tied.

Remember that "play" and "off" are common words, and their compounding can occur naturally. This is evidenced by the number of alternate senses that exist in the interem between Shakespeare and the modern sense:

3. trans. To cause (a person) to be shown at a disadvantage; to make a fool of. Obsolete.

4. trans. To discharge, set off (artillery, a mine, a firework, etc.). Also intr.: to be discharged or fired, to go off. Also fig. Obsolete.

6. trans. To pass off as something else.

7. intr. U.S. To shirk responsibility, esp. to evade work by feigning illness. Frequently in to play off sick.


Welp, the dictionary websites all say its first recorded usage was somewhere from 1890-1895, but aren't helpful enough to explain where or by whom. Still, while Shakespeare might be responsible for "play off", he doesn't appear to get the credit for playoff.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/playoff http://www.dictionary.com/browse/playoff

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