I've recently introduced my granddaughter to the game of jacks. Since I enjoyed playing it as a youngster, revisiting that part of my salad days with her has been fun. Neither of us, it seems, are very dextrous at it, and sometimes her younger brother makes off with the ball, but that's all part of the adventure of playing with grandchildren.
Since I haven't seen many kids these days playing jacks, I've wondered if this game has largely been relegated to the ancient days of my childhood. Little did I know until today just how ancient it is.
I already knew that “dibs” is a slang word that means “a claim to a share of, or rights in, something wanted,” according to Webster's. What I didn't know, however, is that it came into English in the “mid 18th century (denoting pebbles used in a children's game): from earlier dib-stones,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
“As with many children's playground games, [knucklebones] is known by a wide variety of names including astragaloi, hucklebones, dibs, dibstones, jackstones, chuckstones, five-stones jackrocks, onesies, jax, kugelach, batu seremban, or snobs,” according to Wikipedia.
Our modern-day jacks, the little x-shaped pieces, evolved from the “knucklebones” of a sheep, Wikipedia further explains. “Sophocles, in a fragment, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to Palamedes, who taught them to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones … .”
It is unclear how one name of the game, which Wikipedia says has a myriad of variations and is played in many parts of the world, evolved into a claim for something. A player, though, indeed tries to pick up and thus “claim” the jacks, so maybe that's why.
As always, when I research a word I meander down interesting semantic byways, often stumbling across a good quote I just have to share. Here's one by a psychologist and a pioneer in the use of play therapy for children:
“Perhaps there is more understanding and beauty in life when the glaring sunlight is softened by the patterns of shadows. Perhaps there is more depth in a relationship that has weathered some storms. Experience that never disappoints or saddens or stirs up feeling is a bland experience with little challenge or variation of color.”
Virginia Mae Axline, Dibs in Search of Self
The Game of Knucklebones, an oil on canvas painting by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1734
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia