BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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‘Board Game’ vs ‘Boardgame’

In which I debate an issue of extremely limited importance.

The vagaries of the English language mean that we have two perfectly viable ways to write the very same nine letters, and I was recently given to wonder which of these two forms might be considered, assuming that you are in any way bothered about considering such things, more correct. This is an example where the ‘wisdom of crowds’ argument is likely to be the strongest, and who (or what) better to settle this than Google, the biggest and most easily accessible crowd there is.

A simple comparative search for either board game or boardgame yields some convincing numbers. The first search returns a whopping 174,000,000 results (give or take a few), the second a comparatively paltry 7,710,000, which puts the frequency and use of the two in a ratio of around 23:1. However, Google is smarter than me, and hence needs to be given more specific instructions to prevent it thinking for itself. That first search — and this is obvious just by looking — returns far more than just those results composed of ‘board game’ written as two words.

So, a more meaningful comparative search is “board game” or “boardgame” (we now include the quotes to limit Google’s algorithm) which returns results in far lower number and in a less compelling ratio. Now the first search has ‘only’ 6,700,000 results, the second ‘just’ 936,000: a ratio of around 7:1.

Still pretty convincing, but the community is hardly in agreement; consider, if you will, the twin online pillars of BoardGameGeek and Boardgame News. And the industry at large cannot make up its mind either…

The real question, I would argue, is whether the two forms should be considered to have any semantic distinction. Consider the parallel question of whether card game or cardgame is more correct. This might seem a rather foolish question, at least in English; no-one would ever write ‘cardgame’ on a box, would they? No, but boardgaming linguists are probably aware that in Germany, land of the brettspiel and the kartenspiel, this entire argument is moot. But see what I did there! I wrote ‘boardgaming linguists’, which is surely more correct than ‘board gaming linguists’.

Here’s my (rather laboured) point. In English, neither form is wrong in some absolute sense. A game with a board is clearly a ‘board game’, but the community has taken the use of that compound noun further, and has created a compound verb all of their own: ‘to boardgame’. I boardgame; you boardgame; he, she, we and they all boardgame.

The English language has a fine tradition of taking perfectly decent compound nouns and making perfectly decent compound verbs out of them, and often these new verbs are, over time, concatenated to reflect the way that the once-separate words become more usually run together in speech when used as a verb.

The benefit of this slurring of the language is that boardgame as a verb can describe an entire class of activity, one that isn’t limited to simply playing ‘games with boards’. People who indulge (generally in the privacy of their own homes) their ludological vices can therefore play board games, card games, party games, dexterity games, anything-you-can-think-of games and still be considered boardgamers through and through, one and all.

Phew! I’m glad I got that off my chest. Although I am reminded of some advice I read a long time ago, when I used to edit technical textbooks for a living…

When established idiom clashes with grammar, correctness is on the side of the idiom. Put another way, if sticking grimly to the rules of grammar makes you sound like a pompous pedant, you are a pompous pedant.

William Safire

It's funny because I think that "board game" is more appropriate, but I use "boardgame" instead because it is one less character... in this age of Twitter and Facebook, that character is key!

I prefer "boardgame" myself, mainly to be more consistent with the use of "boardgamer", since the general term "gamer" has been stolen in popular culture by the video gamers.

Anonymous said...

February 11, 2010 7:45 am

Great quote from Safire. Agreed.

I think that "board game" is more appropriate

Betty Dingus said...

February 11, 2010 7:52 pm

Boardgame can be a verb, but I'm more likely to say, "I'm going to play boardgames at Angela's" than "I'm boardgaming at Angela's."

I think the words should be combined just as homeschool has been combined. The correct term (in journalism and spell checkers) is "home school" but "I'm home schooling my son" is less clear than "I'm homeschooling my son." "We home school" sounds dumb, too. So if the words already mean something else when separated, I say combine them.

Also, there's no pause in the speech: homeschool, boardgame. Who says, "Let's play a board (pause) game?"

And as for "gaming" and "gamer," yes they can mean videogame players, but anywhere near a casino they also mean gambling and gambler. They've changed it to soften it, at least here in the Bible Belt.

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You're right that it's of limited importance, EXCEPT that if everyone used (and always had used) "boardgame" it would make searching the web for boardgame news a lot easier. Particularly at the moment, when my search engine results are coming back with a load of Olympic snowboarding stories.

Still, too late to worry about it now.

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