play (v.)

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.

play (n.)

Middle English pleie, from Old English plega (West Saxon), plæga (Anglian) "quick motion; recreation, exercise, any brisk activity" (the latter sense preserved in swordplay -- Old English sweordplegan -- etc.), from or related to Old English plegan (see play (v.)).

By early Middle English it could mean variously, "a game, a martial sport, activity of children, joke or jesting, revelry, sexual indulgence." Of physical things, "rapid, brisk, or light movement," by 1620s.

Meaning "dramatic performance" is attested by early 14c., perhaps late Old English. Meaning "free or unimpeded movement, liberty and room for action," of mechanisms, etc., is from 1650s. The meaning "activity, operation" (1590s) is behind expressions such as in full play, come into play. The sporting sense of "the playing of a game" is attested from mid-15c.; that of "specific maneuver or attempt" is from 1868.

The U.S. slang meaning "attention, publicity" is by 1929. To be in play (of a hit ball, etc.) is from 1788. Play-by-play in reference to running commentary on a game is attested from 1927. Play on words "pun" is from 1798. Play-money is attested from 1705 as "money won in gambling," by 1920 as "pretend money."

updated on July 08, 2020

Definitions of play from WordNet
play (v.)
participate in games or sport;
Pele played for the Brazilian teams in many important matches
play cards
We played hockey all afternoon
play (v.)
act or have an effect in a specified way or with a specific effect or outcome;
This development played into her hands
This factor played only a minor part in his decision
I played no role in your dismissal
play (v.)
play on an instrument;
The band played all night long
play (v.)
play a role or part;
She played the servant to her husband's master
Gielgud played Hamlet
Synonyms: act / represent
play (v.)
be at play; be engaged in playful activity; amuse oneself in a way characteristic of children;
I used to play with trucks as a little girl
The kids were playing outside all day
play (v.)
replay (as a melody);
She played the third movement very beautifully
Synonyms: spiel
play (v.)
perform music on (a musical instrument);
Can you play on this old recorder?
He plays the flute
play (v.)
pretend to have certain qualities or state of mind;
She plays deaf when the news are bad
Synonyms: act / act as
play (v.)
move or seem to move quickly, lightly, or irregularly;
The spotlights played on the politicians
play (v.)
bet or wager (money);
He played $20 on the new horse
She plays the races
play (v.)
engage in recreational activities rather than work; occupy oneself in a diversion;
On weekends I play
Synonyms: recreate
play (v.)
pretend to be somebody in the framework of a game or playful activity;
Let's play like I am mommy
play (v.)
emit recorded sound;
the stereo was playing Beethoven when I entered
The tape was playing for hours
play (v.)
perform on a certain location;
The prodigy played Carnegie Hall at the age of 16
She has been playing on Broadway for years
play (v.)
put (a card or piece) into play during a game, or act strategically as if in a card game;
He is playing his cards close to his chest
The Democrats still have some cards to play before they will concede the electoral victory
play (v.)
engage in an activity as if it were a game rather than take it seriously;
They played games on their opponents
play with her feelings
play the stock market
Synonyms: toy
play (v.)
behave in a certain way;
play fair
play safe
play it safe
play (v.)
cause to emit recorded audio or video;
He never tires of playing that video
I'll play you my favorite record
Synonyms: run
play (v.)
manipulate manually or in one's mind or imagination;
He played with the idea of running for the Senate
She played nervously with her wedding ring
Synonyms: toy / fiddle / diddle
play (v.)
use to one's advantage;
She plays on her clients' emotions
play (v.)
consider not very seriously;
She plays with the thought of moving to Tasmania
Synonyms: dally / trifle
play (v.)
be received or accepted or interpreted in a specific way;
This speech didn't play well with the American public
His remarks played to the suspicions of the committee
play (v.)
behave carelessly or indifferently;
Synonyms: dally / toy / flirt
play (v.)
cause to move or operate freely within a bounded space;
The engine has a wheel that is playing in a rack
play (v.)
perform on a stage or theater;
I played in `A Christmas Carol'
She acts in this play
Synonyms: act / roleplay / playact
play (v.)
be performed or presented for public viewing;
`Cats' has been playing on Broadway for many years
What's playing in the local movie theater?
play (v.)
cause to happen or to occur as a consequence;
play a joke
Synonyms: bring / work / wreak / make for
play (v.)
discharge or direct or be discharged or directed as if in a continuous stream;
The fountains played all day
play water from a hose
play (v.)
make bets;
play the casinos in Trouville
play (v.)
stake on the outcome of an issue;
She played all her money on the dark horse
Synonyms: bet / wager
play (v.)
shoot or hit in a particular manner;
She played a good backhand last night
play (v.)
use or move;
I had to play my queen
play (v.)
employ in a game or in a specific position;
They played him on first base
play (v.)
contend against an opponent in a sport, game, or battle;
Charlie likes to play Mary
Princeton plays Yale this weekend
Synonyms: meet / encounter / take on
play (v.)
exhaust by allowing to pull on the line;
play a hooked fish
play (n.)
a dramatic work intended for performance by actors on a stage;
he wrote several plays but only one was produced on Broadway
Synonyms: drama / dramatic play
play (n.)
a theatrical performance of a drama;
the play lasted two hours
play (n.)
a preset plan of action in team sports;
the coach drew up the plays for her team
play (n.)
a deliberate coordinated movement requiring dexterity and skill;
the runner was out on a play by the shortstop
Synonyms: maneuver / manoeuvre
play (n.)
a state in which action is feasible;
the ball was still in play
insiders said the company's stock was in play
play (n.)
utilization or exercise;
the play of the imagination
play (n.)
an attempt to get something;
they made a futile play for power
Synonyms: bid
play (n.)
activity by children that is guided more by imagination than by fixed rules;
Freud believed in the utility of play to a small child
Synonyms: child's play
play (n.)
(in games or plays or other performances) the time during which play proceeds;
rain stopped play in the 4th inning
Synonyms: playing period / period of play
play (n.)
the removal of constraints;
they gave full play to the artist's talent
Synonyms: free rein
play (n.)
a weak and tremulous light;
the play of light on the water
Synonyms: shimmer
play (n.)
verbal wit or mockery (often at another's expense but not to be taken seriously);
Synonyms: fun / sport
play (n.)
movement or space for movement;
there was too much play in the steering wheel
Synonyms: looseness
play (n.)
gay or light-hearted recreational activity for diversion or amusement;
it was all done in play
Synonyms: frolic / romp / gambol / caper
play (n.)
(game) the activity of doing something in an agreed succession;
it is still my play
Synonyms: turn
play (n.)
the act of playing for stakes in the hope of winning (including the payment of a price for a chance to win a prize);
there was heavy play at the blackjack table
Synonyms: gambling / gaming
play (n.)
the act using a sword (or other weapon) vigorously and skillfully;
Synonyms: swordplay
From, not affiliated with etymonline.