What does ‘roshambo’ mean?

Reading time: About 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: roshambo…

A charming novel by Sameer Pandya a creative writing and Asian American literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara — gives me my word of the week, today. And that word is roshambo.

I’m seldom completely taken aback by words. Usually context will give me some clue to meaning, as does my knowledge of French and my much weaker knowledge of Latin. But when Pandya used the word roshambo in his novel Members Only, I was completely mystified. Here is how he used the word:

I did the drop-offs and pickups on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while Eva took Mondays and Wednesdays. We roshamboed for Fridays.

Roshambo, it turns out, is another name for the game Rock, Paper Scissors, popular on the West Coast of the United States (although unknown to me on the West Coast of Canada). The earliest known use of  the word is found in a 1936 book called The Handbook for Recreation Leaders, published in Oakland, California. There, it is spelled with hyphens: “ro-sham-beau.”

Versions of the game originated in China in the 1600s before spreading to Japan, where it was called “Jon Ken Pon.” The Japanese game eventually spread to Europe in the early 20th century, and made it to the U.S. in the 1930s. Linguists speculate that kids playing Rock, Paper, Scissors may have become familiar with the Japanese name Jon Ken Pon and Americanized it into roshambo.

If you’re interested in more detail on the origin of this word, a Slate podcast known as Lexicon Valley will tell you more.

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