1722, "anything with which one amuses oneself, a harmless frolic," Scottish and northern England dialect, possibly a shortened form of employ. Popularized in the sense of "move or gambit made to manipulate others and gain advantage" by British humorist Stephen Potter (1900-1969), who parodied self-help manuals in books such as 1947's "The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating."
c. 1600, "to be jovial and boisterous," also "to talk bombastically," from Dutch randten (earlier ranten) "talk foolishly, rave," of unknown origin (compare German rantzen "to frolic, spring about," dialectal rant "noise, uproar"). Related: Ranted; ranting. Ranters as the name of an antinomian sect which arose in England c. 1645 is attested from 1651; applied 1823 to Primitive Methodists. A 1700 slang dictionary has rantipole "a rude wild Boy or Girl" (also as a verb and adjective); to ride rantipole meant "The woman uppermost in the amorous congress" [Grose].
mid-14c., reuerye, "wild conduct, frolic," from Old French reverie, resverie "revelry, rejoicing, wantonness, raving, delirium" (Modern French rêverie), from resver "to dream, wander, rave" (12c., Modern French rêver), a word of uncertain origin (also the source of rave).
The meaning "a daydream" also "fit of abstract musing, state of mental abstraction" is attested from 1650s, a reborrowing from French, which might explain why this old word in English has not been fully nativized as revery. "The most obvious external feature marking this state is the apparent unconsciousness or imperfect perception of external objects" [Century Dictionary]. As a type of instrumental musical composition, it is attested from 1880. Related: Reverist.
Middle English pleien, from Old English plegan, plegian "move lightly and quickly, occupy or busy oneself, amuse oneself; engage in active exercise; frolic; engage in children's play; make sport of, mock; perform music," from Proto-West Germanic *plegōjanan "occupy oneself about" (source also of Old Saxon plegan "vouch for, take charge of," Old Frisian plega "tend to," Middle Dutch pleyen "to rejoice, be glad," German pflegen "take care of, cultivate"), which is apparently connected to the root of plight (v.), but the ultimate etymology is uncertain and the phonetic development is difficult to explain.
Meaning "to take part in" a martial or athletic game is from c. 1200. It has been opposed to work (v.) since late 14c. Meaning "perform or act on the stage" (transitive) is by late 14c., as are the senses of "take the role of" and "make a pretense of, make believe" and "act thoughtlessly or wantonly." Sense of "put forward, move, throw, lay on the table, etc." in the course of a game or contest is by 1560s of chess pieces, 1670s of playing cards. Sense of "operate or cause to operate with continuous or repeated action" is from 1590s. Meaning "to cause (a recording) to reproduce what is on it" is by 1903, probably from the "make music" sense. Related: Played; playing.
Many expressions are from the stage, sports and games, or music, and it is not always easy to say which is from which. To play up "emphasize" is from 1909 (perhaps originally "play music more vigorously"); to play down "minimize" is from 1930; to play along "pretend to agree or cooperate" is from 1929. To play fair "be nice" is from mid-15c. To play house as a children's activity is from 1958.
To play for keeps is from 1861, originally of marbles or other children's games with tokens. To play (something) safe is from 1911; to play favorites is attested from 1902. To play second fiddle in the figurative sense is from 1809 ("Gil Blas"). To play into the hands (of someone) "act in such a way as to give the advantage to one's opponent or a third party" is from 1705. For play the _______ card see card (n.1). For play the field see field (n.). To play with oneself "masturbate" is from 1896 (to play with "have sexual intercourse with" is from mid-13c.). Playing-card "one of a pack of cards used for playing games" is from 1540s.