"gun play"?

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sat Jan 2 15:04:34 UTC 2010

The MED has many examples of the martial sense of play in Middle English,
plei(e sense 4. Ex. from Lydgate's "Siege of Thebes" (a. 1450): "This was
the play and the mortal game Atwen Thebans and the Grekys."

Most of the Middle English cites continue this trope of conflating warfare
and sport. I can't find any examples of compounds like "swordplay" or
"shieldplay" (lindplegan) though.

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Amy West
Sent: Friday, January 01, 2010 2:15 PM
Subject: Re: "gun play"?

Yes, the term "gun play" is common, but whether this use matches the
standard is a good question.

The OED defines it a little differently ("The use of fire-arms; a
shooting affray; skill in shooting") and its earliest illustrative
quote is 1897.

Off the top of my noggin, look to "swordplay" for the root of the
"gun play" formation. M-W dates swordplay to 1602. But the first
sense of "play" in MW is "swordplay".

OED cites "lindplegan" in Beowulf and "sweord [p]legan" in Waldere as
instances of sense 1b of "play" [n]: "The action of lightly and
briskly wielding or plying a weapon in fencing or combat. Freq. as
the second element in compounds" BUT then there's nothing until 1647.

One of the things I do is read historical fencing manuals, and many
of these are in German.  You'll appreciate that the Germans tend to
use more "appropriate" terminology like "Arbeit" and "Krieg" for the
particular back and forth or pushing and pulling between the

I can't recall if George Silver uses "sword play" or "play" in this
sense in his two manuals c. 1590, but I can take a look.

---Amy West

>In her words: "I wonder why the newspaper calls it gun "play" when
>someone shot up his apartment after smacking around his wife.
>Where'd this use of "play" originate?"
>The online Merriam-Webster has 1881 as a date, no cites, for
>"gunplay: the shooting of small arms with intent to scare or kill",
>and I don't have access to the OED right this moment. There are a
>small number of examples in the press, usually for scary frivolous
>discharging of firearms.
>Is this in general use? And why "play" -- is there a specific
>military link, maybe?

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